How did the COVID-19 pandemic influence im/mobility decisions of students and young academics?

Elisabeth Gruber | FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, GER

University students and teachers around the globe found themselves in a novel setting from March 2020 onwards. Universities were closed, teaching in class was forbidden and online teaching widely implemented. Restrictions were only softened for certain studies, where presence was necessary. Therefore, most students at Austrian universities studied remotely throughout the years 2020 and 2021. Which implications did online teaching have on the residential location of students? Did they decide to leave their university towns and return to former living places? And in how far did temporary residential adaptations lead to long-term considerations of where students desire to lead their future lives?

All these questions were in the focus of the research project “Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the im/mobility aspirations of young university graduates” conducted by the author. The project was funded by the cultural department of the City of Vienna and settled at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The study focused on university students in the city of Vienna and their (temporary) relocations during lockdowns as well as (potentially changed) aspirations on future living and desired im/mobilities. Answers to the above-mentioned questions were elaborated by collecting data and analysing them via an explorative quota-sampled online survey that has been conducted between December 2021 and January 2022, including closed and open questions with 283 students participating. Furthermore, empirical results were collected via narrative interviews with students who had changed their living situations or future aspirations during the pandemic. The study focused on students who moved to the city of Vienna for the purpose of studying (from other parts of Austria and foreign countries), as well as students who have lived in Vienna before starting their studies there.

COVID-19 and student im/mobilities – recent discourses

When the study was launched, it was impossible to foresee how (if at all) the COVID-19 pandemic would influence student’s im/mobilities and for how long. Already in the early 2020, there were speculations that long-term consequences have to be expected, as closed borders but also experiences during lockdowns would lead to changed preferences of people (Brady, 2020; Böhme & Lähteenmaki 2020). As of today, it is established knowledge that the pandemic had impacts on global human mobility dynamics (Martin & Bergmann 2021). According to student mobility in Austria, we can observe how internal migration patterns of young people in the year 2021 have changed compared to before the crisis (see Statistik Austria 2022a) Internal migration balance in this age group in the past years has only been positive for urban agglomerations, in which we find a university (for the years 2016-2019). In the year 2021, we find other regions with a positive migration balance.

Changed internal migration trends have also been reported in other countries such as Australia, Germany, Japan, and Sweden (Fielding & Ishikawa 2022; Borsellino et al. 2022; Vogiazides et al. 2022; Stawarz et al. 2022). In most of the countries, we find the mobility of young adults having the main bearing in this and a stronger tendency towards settling down the urban hierarchy.

Changed aspirations and potential long-term trends

In the study performed, we also find a slight tendency of students to rather settle down the urban hierarchy. The study did not have a representative character, still we were able to derive important results for future research. Around a fourth of the interviewed students have indicated that the pandemic has influenced their decision where they want to reside in the future. A certain amount mentioned how they became more drawn to live close to green areas and some explicitly mentioned the wish to settle down the urban hierarchy. Reasons for leaving urban areas were mainly social aspects and aspects of life quality. In our narrative interviews we found how difficult lockdowns and social distancing has been for newly arrived students, eventually hindering social arrival. Still, the majority of the students aspires to stay in the city of Vienna (or another city) after graduating. That the pandemic had influences on their lives was indicated by almost half of the students. They have reflected future life plans, e.g. according to career aspirations. Further, aspirations represent only imagined futures and students very often find themselves in a very insecure life phase.

Another important learning was about temporary im/mobilities of students during the lockdowns. Especially students that came to Vienna for studying from another part of Austria have spent a certain amount of time outside of Vienna during the first lockdown. International students in the survey indicated on average a larger amount of time spent in Vienna. Students from third-countries had more difficulties to leave during lockdowns and often felt immobilized and cut-off from social ties (at home, but also at university). International students did not necessarily leave during the first lockdown, but later on made their way to their home countries. Reasons for leaving the city were on the one hand social aspects: being close to family, but also well-known friends from home they were able to trust, especially for those newly arrived. What is more, many students reported on better life quality (access to green areas) outside the urban area. Still, all students indicated that they have stayed in the city most of their time during the first lockdown and also during lockdown 4. This would indicate that greater metropolis show attractivity beyond being a place for studying.

The aim of the study performed was to gain deeper insight into changed aspirations of students and thus im/mobility preferences of graduates as well as changes during the lockdowns. The study concludes with some open questions: on the one hand, the focus was on students who have already studied in Vienna during the lockdowns. Those students who have never (or only after they already started their studies remotely) settled in the city, potentially even show fewer readiness to stay in the city after their studies. In the year 2021, for young people aged 18 and 19, outmigration of rural areas has decreased to a higher extent than for the age group 20 to 24 (statistical analysis performed by the author with migration data from Statistik Austria for NUTS3 regions; analysis to be published soon).

Furthermore, migration to urban areas and intermediary regions (suburbs, small towns) has slightly decreased compared to the years before the crisis (even if we still find positive migration balances in most regions of these categories). This underlines that it remains unclear from the study how implications of the pandemic have been for other university locations. Especially in small towns, we might find a greater amount of students who have left and became reluctant to restarting their studies in class. The internal migration statistics for university towns in Austria show a different picture and in certain locations the outmigration of young population was more pronounced than in others. This gives horizon for future observation and research on student im/mobility and post-pandemic location preferences.

October 2022

Why researchers should be interested in the relationship between migration and education

Johanna L. Waters | University College London, UK | Twitter: @johannalwaters

Interest in education by scholars working on migration is not new, but the intensity and breadth of the interest has changed markedly over the past decade. The relationship between migration and education is, I would argue, an increasingly important one and an important ‘lens’ through which mobilities within society should be viewed.

What do we mean by ‘education’? There are different ways in which migration scholars have conceptualised education. Traditionally, migration researchers have been interested in migrant children’s experiences of education systems (particularly schooling) post-migration, focussing on issues of integration in the school system and, more recently, ‘diversity in the school yard’.

There has also been a lot of academic work on the perceived mismatch between skills/qualifications and occupational outcomes for immigrant workers. Migrant workers tend to be disproportionally found in low-skill occupations, discommensurate with their actual (objective) levels of skill. Migrants, in other words, tend to be underemployed.

However, it is not until relatively recently that researchers have become increasingly cognisant of the fact that people migrate for education; education is a primary motivation for, or driver of, migration. People migrate in order to access education for themselves, or for their children. Migration opens up educational opportunities – it provides access to systems and courses not available ‘at home’. It also provides access to ‘valuable’ forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986) that different education systems, educational institutions and cultural environments are able to confer. As sociologists of education have for a long time argued, education is far more than a qualification, but inscribes systems of meaning and often ‘rewards’ middle-class forms of knowledge, both facilitating and inhibiting social mobility, depending on your view.

Interestingly, migration scholars have also shown that migration for education can allow individuals to escape (through mobility) oppressive local cultures of credentialisation and hierarchisation (Waters, 2015). This tendency can be especially acute in East and Southeast Asia, where competition for school and university places is fierce, with implications for the well-being of both parents and children embroiled within these systems. In this situation, migration can offer a two-fold benefit – enabling families both to escape harsh, unrelenting educational competition and at the same time allowing children to access a subjectively more valuable set of academic credentials and to accumulate more valuable embodied cultural capital through overseas schooling. As my own project showed, young people were able to migrate from Hong Kong to Canada, escape a highly competitive schooling environment, access higher education and return to Hong Kong on graduation with a more valued set of credentials that gave them access to the most prestigious jobs (Waters, 2006)

Tertiary-level students are also classified, in many countries such as the UK, as international migrants, and numbers of international students, globally, are now around 5 million. These figures exclude young people who migrate as dependents with parents in order to access education but come under alternative (non-student) visa categories. International students are significant and worthy of study for so many reasons – numerically they are important (in some countries and some institutions they represent a relatively high percentage of the total student body) but they are also transforming urban areas through ‘studentification’ (Sage et al., 2011) and creating their own cultural communities both on university campuses and in the wider surrounds.  International students are also conduits of knowledge and facilitate (global) mobilities of knowledge (King and Raghuram, 2013).

There are also strong economic arguments to be made about the significance of international student migration. Through the payment of tuition fees and other expenditures, international students represent a significant source of income for some countries and particular higher education institutions within those countries (Healey, 2017). However, these economic arguments are increasingly being countered by scholars interested in the ethics and accountability attached to international student migration, with particular emphasis on the responsibility of ‘receiving’ countries and institutions have for those students (Madge et al., 2009; Lomer et al, 2018). Whilst we have a good understanding of the economic arguments around student migration, there remains a pressing need for researchers to explore further the complex ethical dimensions of their mobilities.

July 2019

Integration of youth:

Challenges and opportunities

Lucie Cerna | OECD, Directorate for Education and Skills

OECD countries have witnessed increasing and more diverse migration flows over the last decade. Immigration can pose challenges for countries, but also has the potential to generate significant opportunities for host countries, especially in times of ageing populations and increasing labour and skills shortages. Immigrant children and youth represent a particularly important source of future talent. Their young age increases their chances to learn  the host country language fluently, become accustomed to the host country’s culture and social norms, and earn qualifications that employers recognise and need.

A high quality education system is essential for the successful integration of immigrant youth. Unfortunately, in many OECD countries, immigrant students fare worse than native students in terms of their success in developing basic cognitive skills as well as exhibiting social and emotional well-being. The recent OECD report “The Resilience of Students with an Immigrant Background: Factors that Shape Well-being” draws on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 analysis of 15-year-old students to better understand these differences and their causes, as well as to illuminate school policies and practices that work to facilitate the successful integration of immigrant youth into society and the labour market.

In most countries, immigrant students expressed greater motivation to achieve, but were often not able to capitalise on their motivation to achieve success in school. The report finds that academic underperformance among students with an immigrant background is particularly pronounced in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Sweden and Switzerland. In these countries, immigrant students (students, native- or foreign-born, who have two foreign-born parents) are more than twice as likely as students without an immigrant background to fail to achieve baseline academic proficiency.

But even in some countries where academic underperformance among immigrant students is not as marked, the analysis also shows that students with an immigrant background exhibit comparatively poor outcomes on other measures of well-being. In the Slovak Republic and Spain, for example, immigrant students were considerably less likely than native students to report a strong sense of belonging at school. In France, Iceland, Spain and the United Kingdom, immigrant students were considerably less likely to report being satisfied with their life. In Austria, Finland, Luxembourg and Switzerland, they were considerably more likely than native students to report high levels of schoolwork-related anxiety.

Despite these challenges, schools remain a critical locus for linking young immigrants to their host societies. This report and the policy forum series of the Strength through Diversity project reveal that there are many examples of good practices and policies across education communities that can help immigrant students to overcome the multiple sources of disadvantage they often face and to reach their full potential. Good practices include:

  • Providing access to education for all children with an immigrant background
  • Promoting early assessment of language and other skills
  • Re-considering ability grouping, grade repetition and early tracking
  • Offering targeted language training
  • Promoting a supportive climate at school
  • Providing additional support to students and schools
  • Offering extracurricular activities
  • Promoting greater parent engagement
  • Training and developing diversity-aware teachers
  • Offering mentoring schemes
  • Creating positive relationships between schools and the wider community

While schools can play a role in promoting the integration of immigrant students, they can only be successful when their efforts are co-ordinated with the broader the education, health, social and welfare systems. Consequently, strengthening partnerships among different policy sectors and with stakeholders is essential for unlocking the potential for schools to foster the talent potential of immigrant students and, thereby, helping to build better societies and economies for all.

September 2018

Multilingualism and Integration –

International Experience from the Field of Education

Barbara Herzog-Punzenberger | Cultural Anthropologist and Educator, Johannes Kepler University Linz

[This blog entry first appeared in German as an Introduction to the 2017 series of Policy Briefs ‘Migration and Multilingualism in Austrian Schools’.]

During the Second Republic, Austria experienced an impressive expansion in education. Much that was considered impossible and perhaps undesirable in 1950, such as higher education for most young women, is a reality today. A few decades earlier, it was even argued that the female brain was less suitable for abstract thinking than the male one.

The prejudices against multilingualism seem similarly deep-rooted. Multilingual children were ascribed low intelligence, until it turned out that the scientific studies, on which this assessment was based, did not take into account the socio-economic background of the children studied (Olechowski in Furch, 2009). Therefore, these inferences were subject to systematic bias. Likewise, it is known today that stereotypes – solidified, schematic notions about particular groups of people – restricts the performance of students who fear being affected and in this way diminishes the well-being of this person (Inzlicht and Schmader, 2012). Furthermore, knowledge about the real-life situation of students and their families, who come from a different social milieu – with or without a migrant background – is surprisingly low in many cases.

The socio-cultural and linguistic diversity of today’s student body is a fact that forms – together with many other socially relevant distinctions – the starting point for future social development. Multilingualism must therefore be used as productively as possible in the interests of a democratic development. This does not put into question that German is the official and common language. However, how best to learn, teach and develop in the context of a multilingual society is not a question of “simple” solutions based on everyday understandings but needs some complex answers.

One component is linguistically responsive subject teaching. Interestingly enough, this approach facilitates learning not only for multilingual students, but also for those native students whose variant of German is not as close to the “academic” language of the school. The “academic” variant of a language, utilised in schools and other educational settings, obeys other usage laws than the spoken everyday language. It is similar to written language, which is more abstract, decontextualized and more complicated, and which uses different words, grammar and syntax. The general understanding in the German-speaking countries was that children should either get these skills at home or, if they are exceptionally gifted, they would succeed in school anyway. However, a democratic society should strive to make those skills available to all children, irrespective of whether they were already acquired from their parents or simply lucky to be naturally endowed with particularly high academic intelligence.

Change is not only possible, but takes place all the time, also in deep-rooted ideas, deemed basic. Not so long ago, the clear classification and restriction of the gender roles was seen as an important component of the Austrian culture by conservative parts of the Austrian society. Contrary to this, today gender equality, and the associated freedom of choice, are used as a marker in symbolic border-drawings against fellow citizens from other cultures. Similarly, the self-understanding of linguistic and cultural diversity in a society is constantly changing. If evaluated positively, this multilingualism could become incorporated as part of 21st Austrianness, i.e. how the Austrian society perceives itself in the 21st century. The prerequisite for this, however, is a competent way of dealing with it, especially in educational institutions. For these upcoming developments, a broad alliance between all actors must be created. Data and research should assist in this process (Herzog-Punzenberger et al., 2017).

September 2018