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International Education In The Time of Coronavirus: An Interview With Prof. Sarah Todd


The MSM team sat down for an interview with Prof. Sarah Todd, President of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE), on the recently announced postponement of the APAIE 2020 Conference and Exhibition until March 2021 due to the global coronavirus outbreak. At the helm of the regional association and as Vice President for Global at Griffith University, she offers insight into how international education associations and higher education institutions (HEIs) are grappling with the effects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on international students and entire communities. 

Describe the decision-making that went into the postponement of APAIE 2020. How long was it in the making? What were the biggest factors you considered?

Recently, an increasing number of countries have imposed additional travel restrictions as the spread and identification of new COVID-19 cases increased in different parts of the world. Interestingly, despite that increase, our number of new registrations for the conference continued to climb, with about 160 new registrations just last week. However, we were also cognizant of the fact that our colleagues in countries such as Japan and Korea were facing travel restrictions internally as well, affecting their ability to participate.


So it was a particularly difficult decision to make, as APAIE 2020 is a big conference that sees around 2,500 from across the world in attendance every year. But we are all about engaging with one another and building relationships, and while we can provide guidelines regarding physical interactions such as restricting handshakes at the event, we ultimately decided on the basis of what would be best for our local partners and our participants coming from all over the world. Based on updated WHO advisories and an increased number of coronavirus cases outside mainland China, and after consultation with Simon Fraser University as our lead host institution, I put a recommendation at the weekend to the APAIE Executive Committee which was then endorsed by the full Board.

“Crisis brings out the best and worst in people. We’ve seen institutions at their best so far, looking at what courses can be introduced online, taking into consideration that access to stable internet and external content in mainland China can be difficult.”

Were there differences in perspective in the APAIE leadership in postponing the conference?

None at all.  Simon Fraser University [as the lead host], BCCIE [as the lead organiser] and the and the APAIE Executive Committee were in total agreement. The APAIE board comprises colleagues from countries such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia, and they were all aware of the restrictions being faced within their own areas. There was no debate and it was very much a consensual decision. The response so far has been overwhelmingly supportive. The sense is that we have made the decision at the right time (three weeks out from the start of the conference), although we are very aware of the impact on individuals’ travel plans.


This is very much a postponement and not a cancellation. Of course, we recognise that some people won’t be able to commit to the new conference date, but we are hoping that many people will want their registration automatically transferred and we are being flexible about changes to names, for example, and providing responses via FAQs on the website to keep everyone informed.

How do you see your role and APAIE’s position at a difficult time like this for the industry?

We are aware of the increased racism and xenophobia, and that the virus is very much associated in the public’s mind with China. It definitely concerns the APAIE. This is why we believe the social aspect of the situation is very important to look at. The fear and hysteria surrounding COVID-19 put forward the importance of the APAIE and international education associations like ours in reinforcing that we live in a globally connected world. What’s crucial is that we equip the broader community and our own institutions with factual information and the benefits of all the different activities that make up international education.

Would you consider COVID-19 one of the biggest challenges to international education in recent history?

As we always say, there is never a dull moment in international education. In Australia and New Zealand, it struck with such impeccable timing, with it being the start of the academic year. Travel bans began to be introduced when many of our mainland Chinese students had gone home either for our summer break or the lunar New Year holiday. Certainly, it’s going to have an ongoing impact and a wealth of implications.

Were you already working in the sector during the time of SARS in 2003 and how is this different or similar?

I was an academic in a business school back then. Today a lot more information is coming out formally and informally [about COVID-19]. There’s widespread access to social media and an increased ability to both access and spread information. I don’t think there was a feeling among people back in 2003 that SARS would hit them. Right now, the novel coronavirus outbreak is the subject of significant discussion and fear at the local community level.

From your perspective and continuing work on the ground, how are Australian institutions responding to the crisis?

Crisis brings out the best and worst in people. We’ve seen institutions at their best so far, looking at what courses can be introduced online, taking into consideration that access to stable internet and external content in mainland China can be difficult. One question that has needed to be answered is, for example: How do we get our learning management systems running and working in China amid tight security and restrictions? Many programs, too, have work-integrated learning, studio work, lab work and other aspects that are difficult to put up online.


This crisis has been an opportunity to look at how we can use technology to keep our students engaged and support them every step of the way, particularly in areas such as maintaining language proficiency when they aren’t able to practice their academic and social English every day. We are implementing flexible solutions around additional intakes for some programs and increased online delivery. Institutions are also working hard to continue engaging their students, alumni, and institutional partnerships to mitigate the impacts.

How much difference are online learning courses making so far?

If you can overcome challenges around the use of the internet in China, VPNs, and the like, they are a definite advantage for some providers. The certainty of knowing what courses are available and how it will work has definitely been critical for many students.

How are HEIs and educational associations working with government agencies to help shape policy around the crisis and forthcoming ones?

Just this morning, I was reading an update as to how NAFSA is working with the U.S. government to support students. For Australian HEIs, we are working with government agencies for flexibility around things like deferring funding support for outbound mobility programs, as well as flexibility around visa requirements and costs. I think there’s a general recognition in governments that regulations might need to be reviewed, and that foreign students have committed to study with us but that, right now, their lives are being put on hold. I think everyone is well aware that particular cohorts of international students are being massively affected.


The silver lining? Everyone is willing to engage. Regional associations, local and state government education organisations, all have all been working together, collating information and encouraging people to share best practice with others.  


“There’s a world of difference in dealing with a pandemic and dealing with a fire in a building or campus closure due to flooding. It feels like there’s no end in sight as COVID-19 continues to strike different parts of the world, but along with it comes important learnings for institutions in terms of engaging the wider university community, keeping everyone informed and providing support where it is needed.”

How has COVID-19 affected international education so far, at least in Australia where you’re located?

It’s still slightly early to tell exactly what the impact will be for Australia and New Zealand. By now students are usually already on campus, but there’s uncertainty and governments are regularly reviewing travel restrictions. Some students, we know, have come via 14 days in third countries to comply with quarantine rules. By late March, the deadline for being on most campuses and enrolled, we will have a better idea of how many students are onshore, how many are still offshore, and the number choosing to enrol in online options.


For our part, we have extended deadlines, are modelling financial impacts, and identifying where and how we will need to put in extra support for this cohort.

What do the upcoming weeks and months ahead look like from the HEIs perspective?

Different countries have different policies, and we’re yet to see the full pipeline impact on student flows. As far as some English language programs are concerned, for instance, students in mainland China have been unable to take the tests required to confirm their university admissions.


One thing’s for sure: COVID-19 will have long-term effects. For now, we need to be agile, flexible, and be very mindful of the fact that students are affected in individual ways. We need to reinforce the sharing of data and reports where that information sits in different places, such as institutional and government. We have to strengthen our relationships with, and support our recruitment agents, who have been extremely helpful in translating institutional information and providing reassurance for students and their parents, and are impacted as well.


Large universities are complex organisations – how are we communicating consistently? It is important that messaging is clear and consistent, regardless of where it comes from. One issue is the ongoing and evolving nature of this crisis. There’s a world of difference in dealing with a pandemic and dealing with a fire in a building or campus closure due to flooding. It feels like there’s no end in sight as COVID-19 continues to strike different parts of the world, but along with it comes important learnings for institutions in terms of engaging the wider university community, keeping everyone informed and providing support where it is needed.

Where do you see gaps in responses, if any?

From what I’ve seen and heard from colleagues involved in APAIE and across the region, everybody is putting the health and wellbeing of staff and students at the forefront. Some staff may be uncomfortable travelling these days, and I’ve not heard anyone say that they would make people travel for recruitment events, for example. There might be some affected Chinese students who think information is slow to come out, but that’s understandable and many staff are willingly putting in the hard work and long hours to work out solutions for individuals and provide that information. Staff might also be worried for the health of themselves and their families, so we are putting out a lot of factual information about the risk of the virus and how to mitigate those risks.

With the APAIE 2020 still months into the future, what are your personal and APAIE’s priorities right now?

We have resolved to continue working as a community and continuing with plans to further develop the association, exploring different ways to provide value through memberships and support wherever we can. The last couple of years have been really positive for APAIE and it’s important to keep the momentum going. Postponing the annual conference obviously means losing our main income for the year, but health and wellbeing have to come first. We will continue to work to make sure that, when we do meet in Vancouver in March 2021, the conference will be even better..

About Sarah Todd

Professor Sarah Todd leads Griffith University’s internationalisation activities and is currently the President of APAIE. She is also an appointed member of the Queensland Government’s International Education and Training Advisory Group (IETAG) and a member of both the Universities Australia and Innovative Research Universities (IRU) International Committees. She is also on the boards of Study Gold Coast and the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), and the MSM International Advisory Board. You may reach her on LinkedIn or learn more about APAIE on its website. 


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