Just over two years after international education colleagues in Singapore reported a SARS-like virus that meant they needed to shut the office to comply with public health guidance, I have made my first post-pandemic work trip… to Singapore.
So much has changed since I last visited this remarkable country, and it isn’t only the airport PCR test before boarding or the detour the flight made to avoid Russian and Ukrainian airspace. One of the things that has changed is me.
Before Covid international travel was part of my identity, something I first fell in love with when I went on a French school exchange at 11 and extended as I met friends from across the world through my education and then my work. I learned new languages and was introduced to other cultures and perspectives. For me, freedom of movement was an opportunity to broaden horizons and my mind.
Then in the Spring of 2020 it all stopped. In that anxious period waiting to see if a vaccine might be effective, I worked with my international and UK colleagues via Zoom from my home in the Peak District. A rare drive down to the village post office after weeks of not leaving the house suddenly felt like a strange adventure. I wondered if we would ever travel again and feared the consequences not only for students and education, but for our mindsets.
Would we become more parochial, more nationalistic if we never met and walked each other’s streets or sat at one another’s tables or in our classrooms? Would this mark an end of globalisation intellectually? Could I still proudly say ‘we are international’ and know that spoke of solidarity and connection as well as our university communities?
Thankfully – in large part due to the international community of scientists in labs like the Jenner Institute – the vaccine was shown to be effective. I drove once more to my nearest village of Eyam, known to UK schoolchildren as the place of earlier pandemic isolation during the Great Plague of 1665, to receive my Oxford vaccine. It would reopen the world.
But what have I learned this time in Singapore, as the world now faces a new threat of conflict and hunger due to the invasion of Ukraine?
I’ve learned that international education really matters because it is only by leaving and arriving that parochial perceptions are shaken.
It isn’t just the immediately obvious cultural differences such as attitudes to face masks. Singapore’s great universities NTU and NUS remind those who have grown used to debates around western education that other approaches are available. With generous state funding and high status taken largely for granted, academia has a different feel.
Immediate challenges around sustainability including water usage and managing waste open up new insights into impact and engagement. Yes we might want to fly less and Zoom more, but there is still something that uniquely happens when people come together in person and remember that their own assumptions need not define a problem. Other ways of seeing can unlock solutions, the very reason international collaborations are demonstrably linked to the highest impact research.
“The greatest threat to sustainability and human life itself is conflict fuelled by a lack of education and respect”
And then there is the most profound benefit of international education of all in my mind, the one visible every time I turn on my hotel TV and see the news from Ukraine coming in from CNBC, CCTV, CNN, BBC World and Deutsche Welle.
As I have learned from my Afghan Chevening scholar friends, the greatest threat to sustainability and human life itself is conflict fuelled by a lack of education and respect.
International student exchange doesn’t prevent all war, but it does make the work of building peace more likely to succeed. And the work students do as they meet one another at the world’s great universities is also fundamental to avoiding the conflicts of the future, likely to be driven by a need for water, energy, land. These are global challenges and they won’t be helped if we only look at them through a narrow national political lens.
As I came in to land in Singapore, the flight monitor showed the world from a very different perspective – to one side, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – to the other the Philippines – and ahead the South China Sea and China, Korea and Japan. The shape of the globe meant Europe and my home country of England were not even visible on the map. Our priorities and preoccupations seen only from a distance.
Thankfully international education has survived a pandemic, and we have gathered new techniques and innovated along the way. I hope now we use these to build even more connections. As the world reconfigures in the light of Ukraine, we have never needed that more.
About the author: Ruth Arnold is Senior Advisor (Global External Relations) to Study Group