The recent spread of COVID-19 and its effects on student mobility captures the complexities of an increasingly transnational field of higher education. More specifically, it has brought to the fore the problem of protection of student migrants in globalised education markets and has raised the question of whose responsibility it is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of these individuals. As a sociologist studying student mobility, the current phenomenon of rapid return migration of students from their universities abroad is a compelling case. The situation in Singapore, where I am currently based, is particularly striking. In this piece, I discuss the phenomenon of return student migration during a time of a global health crisis by drawing from unfolding events and relating it to conventional understandings of student mobility.
On 25 March 2020, individuals aged between 20 and 29 made up the largest group of coronavirus cases in Singapore, surpassing the previously most infected group of those aged 60 and above. A large proportion of these young adults who were infected had returned from the United Kingdom and the US, where they had been studying or were on internships. At a time when there were 558 cases island-wide, more than a tenth of the cases were people in the young adult category who had a travel history to the UK. The spread of COVID is driving unexpected and uncertain social processes, and premature return student migration is one of them. In the case of Singapore, this rapid response of returning is taking place from high prestige zones for higher education like the UK and the US.
A week before the spike in COVID infections in Singapore (17 March), and when it became apparent that community spreading was taking place in the UK and the US, the Singaporean ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs issued a travel advisory to all students abroad, encouraging them to come home. Local institutes of higher learning that had students on exchange programmes were also recalling students. The Singapore High Commission in London worked out a special arrangement with the national carrier, Singapore Airlines, to prioritise transporting students who were Singaporean citizens or permanent residents from London Heathrow back to the city-state. When students returned to Singapore, they were issued an official stay-at-home notice for 14 days.
As troops of returning students arrived at Changi airport over a span of a few days the infection rate in Singapore spiked. The government announced more stringent measures such as informing parents not to pick their children up from the airport. Instead, governmental agencies would arrange for the students to be ferried from Changi airport straight to designated hotels where the students would be isolated for fourteen days, with the hotel costs absorbed by the government. The students were not to be allowed visitors over the two weeks of isolation, not permitted out of the hotel room, although food, Wifi and laundry services would be provided.
There are thousands of Singaporean undergraduate and postgraduate students in London alone, with many at the city’s prestigious colleges. Outside of London, Singaporeans make up one of the largest groups of international students at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. For decades, Singaporean institutions have been preparing and cultivating students to be sent abroad for higher education. The COVID pandemic has illustrated what happens if they should return, prematurely and unexpectedly. The ongoing process of return migration thrusts the topic of student mobility into the spotlight, with a tenor that is unlike previous narratives of the benefits of elite transnational educational pathways, or the economics of higher education acquired abroad. In particular, three pressing questions on the phenomenon of return student migration during a global health crisis are raised.
First, how are student migrants different from other migrants? People who move abroad for tertiary education are young, and in many ways, still dependent on their families or sponsors for resources to enable such mobility. This sets them apart from the typical labour migrant or family migrant. The clearest manifestation of parental dependence can be seen through the state-sanctioned instruction that parents should not pick their children from the airport. While an instruction during a time like this could be deemed reasonable as a means to contain virus spread, it is otherwise counter-intuitive for any parent. As young adults who have the ability to travel and live abroad, student migrants are more typically privileged groups, not what would be traditionally conceived by sociologists as at-risk or vulnerable clusters. Their relative position of privilege however should not imply that they should be ignored. Rather, their circulation during a health pandemic highlights the intricacies of their movement in space.
Who gets to return? In earlier days of the outbreak, as universities in the UK sought to respond to the panic brewing in the country, institutions left the decision of returning to their home country to international students themselves. For example, in a letter addressed to the students at the University of Oxford on 16 March, it was written that for international students, returning home “is very much an individual choice that should be made based on personal circumstances. If you cannot get home, or you feel you would prefer to stay in Oxford, you are welcome to do so and we will support you staying in Oxford. However, if you would prefer to be with your family, and it is safe to do so, you are welcome to return home”. At Cambridge, the message was more decisive, “It is especially urgent for international students needing to make travel arrangements to do so as quickly as possible, as many countries are already imposing travel restrictions”.
Since students have not been evacuated from the UK or the US, those who have the financial resources to purchase air tickets home, or were instructed by their parents to do so, commenced the plan of journeying back to Singapore. Not all students are able to leave for various reasons, and some are staying put in their university towns. As this process unfolds, there is no available or total statistics of who has been returning. Nevertheless, it would not be unreasonable to deduce that the process of returning and the expectation to return is classed, with some students more able, or more expected to do so than others, due to the kinds of resources available to them.
This discussion brings us to the issue of vulnerability of student migrants in globalised education markets. As we have witnessed from recent events, during a global health pandemic, there is a limit to what host countries and universities can do for international students. For example, they could allow for leniency around visa rules, or make provisions to keep international students safe. However, experiences of student migrants and the uncertainty they have faced at this time raises a debate on the necessity, or utility, for bilateral agreements between sending and receiving countries of international students to ensure their safety and wellbeing during crisis situations.
Administrative states like Singapore have showcased the coordinating capabilities and resources for organising to get their children home. With a proportion of returnees infected with COVID, tough measures have been implemented to isolate homecoming student migrants from their families. Such procedures have not been observed in many other sending countries that are already struggling on-the-ground with the pandemic, or communities that would not consider postponing a reunion between parent and child. Certainly, the emergence of a global health crisis and its effects on student migration captures the complexities around the migration of young people. It highlights the tension between individual responsibilisation and collective duty, in relation to these types of mobility that have conventionally been viewed as private sojourns for private gain.
Rebecca Ye is Assistant Professor at the Department of Education, Stockholm University
Image: Craig Whitehead