Internationalisation & corona: ‘If it is hard, we are learning’

The pandemic brought many challenges to internationalisation in higher education, but also opportunities to learn and innovate, a new Nuffic study finds.
Posted by Nuffic

'Stressful’, ‘hard’, ‘struggle’. A word cloud included in the report ‘Internationalisation in higher education in times of crisis’ leaves little doubt about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on internationalisation staff in higher education. Fortunately though, these words don’t tell the entire story.

The study, published today by Nuffic, aims to get a clearer picture of internationalisation during the pandemic, with hopes of giving higher education institutions and government more insight into current challenges, experiences of staff, and ways to deal with this crisis – and future crises.

“Since crises are an inevitable part of life, the question of how people deal with them is timeless”, says Elli Thravalou, who conducted the study.

Psychological effects

Elli interviewed 19 professionals of 13 different higher education institutions in the Netherlands. “Our findings show that the work of internationalisation staff has changed considerably during the pandemic. Higher education institutions had to quickly establish Covid-19 policies and deal with various challenges and dilemmas.”

“The pandemic was both unexpected and unpredictable. Combined with an initial lack of information and a clear time path it caused a lot of stress and confusion among staff. The psychological effects, also stemming from isolation during the lockdowns, can hardly be understated.”

Flexibility and inclusion

The 24-page study discusses COVID-19 policies, online alternatives, impact on staff, coping mechanisms and staff needs. Direct quotes from the interviewees as well as summaries per topic make it a pleasant read for everybody professionally involved with internationalisation.

Although it is a big challenge, so much has happened which would never have gone so quick if it wasn’t for the pandemic’

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, there were many upsides too. “The most prevalent one is that institutions were forced to become more innovative”, says Elli. “Before the crisis, many were hesitant towards online education. Now they find it is not only workable, it also offers flexibility as well as opportunities for inclusion. Students who previously couldn’t go abroad because of financial or physical restraints, are suddenly presented with the option to gain international experience from the comfort of their homes.”

“Although it is a big challenge for everyone, so much has happened in the past half year which I believe would never have gone so quick if it wasn’t for the pandemic”, one interviewee noted.

In addition, staff and institutions learned about the value of crisis management. “Adaptability and flexibility are crucial in coping with a crisis. To be better prepared for future calamities, institutions could offer training to staff about crisis and stress management. Our research also shows the importance of communication, cooperation and bonding – in normal times, but even more so in times of crises. Higher education institutions would be wise to invest even more in building a supportive atmosphere among staff.”


Elli hopes that the study gives internationalisation staff new insights and ideas, especially about coping mechanisms. Institutions on the other hand can learn about the needs of staff, both psychological and technological. “We found that some staff need better infrastructure and technical facilities. This is especially important since it looks like we’re moving in the direction of a more hybrid education environment, where face-to-face education will be combined with more online courses.”

Whatever the future holds, internationalisation staff has proven to be up for the challenge. Elli: “I was amazed by the resilience of the people I interviewed. They found creative solutions in a hectic situation, managed to stay in touch, and even found ways to create new partnerships with institutions abroad. One interviewee summed it up best: ‘When it's hard, it means we are learning.’”

Would you like to know more about this study? Please contact Elli Thravalou:

Need support for your internationalisation efforts in times of COVID-19? Nuffic can offer support with programmes, partnerships and knowledge. Please visit our coronavirus page for more info.