In the last week of May, the universities began publishing their instructions relating to the student exchanges planned for the autumn. I thought a lot about how I should react to this news.
My first reaction was disappointment, because very few students will be able to go on exchange this autumn. Then I thought that, considering the safety and wellbeing of the students, there was nothing else that could be done in this situation. My third thought was the impact these decisions will have on upcoming exchanges.
One of the most challenging aspects of the exchanges being cancelled is that many students plan their exchanges more than a year in advance to make sure they fit into the academic year. Now it is important that the universities offer sufficient support for the students in planning their studies and finding alternative courses, because nothing would be more unfortunate at this stage than someone’s studies being delayed because their exchange was cancelled.
In order to advance the affected students’ studies it is also important to organise virtual exchanges. Of course a student exchange is much more than just studying, but at least a virtual exchange would allow the students to achieve some of the goals of a physical exchange. This would allow the students to take the courses they had planned to take at their host university which are not offered at their home university, and which include contents that cannot be studied at home.
We cannot play with people’s lives. That is why the decision to cancel the physical mobility periods is understandable. When public health is at stake and it is still unclear what the situation will be come autumn, we all have to take this matter seriously. That is why it is understandable that the universities have recommended that their staff and students avoid foreign travel.
This is a good time to develop new practices. When operations are interrupted and we notice which factors are not working, that is a good time to develop new practices. This is where we are with international mobility: we have noticed that student exchanges are not necessarily a flexible part of the studies.
The universities have some work to do here, because they need to improve how international mobility is integrated into the degree programmes. If student exchanges became a natural part of the programme, then students would not need to plan their exchanges more than a year in advance, and if the exchange had to be cancelled, then it would be easy to find a different time to go on exchange. Universities should also make it easier to incorporate the studies carried out during an exchange into the degree, so that students can take courses at their host university and be sure that this is advancing their studies. This also applies to virtual exchanges and courses carried out that way.
One way to achieve this in the future could be the platform model promoted by SYL, Social Science Professionals and The Finnish Business School Graduates, which allows students to take courses at partner universities that are open for all. Even though the platform model has mainly been intended as a form of collaboration between Finnish universities, what is there to stop us from using it on an international level in the future?