What fuels students’ ongoing aspirations to study abroad?

In recent decades, higher education has become increasingly more accessible across the world. With the expansion of local universities, international branch campuses and massive open online courses (MOOCs), students can pursue and earn a qualification from a well-established university without needing to leave their country.

However, the notion of going abroad to study still remains appealing despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic as many students still express interest in travelling abroad to further their studies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the growth of virtual student mobility programmes, where university students are invited to participate in intercultural and knowledge exchange remotely instead of being physically present in the host country.

Meanwhile, higher education institutions across Asia have already been involved in a long quest to ‘internationalise’ themselves and student mobility has become a key internationalisation strategy to attract talent from neighbouring regions and beyond.

Flying to a foreign land to pursue a degree is undoubtedly an irresistible dream for some, but why are students willing to leave their comfort zone for something foreign and unpredictable?

This question was the topic of a recent discussion we participated in, during which we reminisced about our aspirations for going abroad to study in the past. While our stories might not be particularly unique, they reflect much of what has been previously documented by other scholars on student mobility.

Seeking membership and legitimacy

Regardless of our country of origin, there was a consensus among us that going abroad to study would enable us to be recognised as legitimate members of our own community.

For example, the experience of studying in international branch campuses certainly cannot replicate the experience of studying at the university’s main campus. The programmes delivered at both campuses may be comparable in quality, yet being at the offshore campus may still not make students feel that they truly belong to the community in their university.

“Deep inside, I felt that spending time studying on-site in Australia would give me the credibility to honestly say that I had an authentic Australian education – instead of just feeling like an imposter graduate who had Australian qualifications but had never set foot in Australia,” says Brendan who began his undergraduate studies at an Australian university’s international branch campus in Malaysia.

Moreover, studying at a foreign university not only presents an opportunity to enrich but also to legitimise students’ professional identity by virtue of them having had a first-hand experience of being immersed in the target culture.

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