Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students at the School of Business want to participate in student exchange

A record number of 500 business students have applied for student exchange for the academic term 2022–2023
Opiskelijoita käytävällä. Kuva: Aalto-yliopisto / Aino Huovio
Photo: Aalto University/ Aino Huovio

For two years already, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges on the daily life of students – and not least so in terms of international mobility. For many students at the School of Business, international student exchange is an essential part of studies. Many students plan their exchange from the very beginning of their studies. Approximately 60 per cent of students at the School of Business complete part of their degree in student exchange. For students in the Bachelor’s Programme in International Business at the Mikkeli campus, student exchange is a compulsory part of the degree. In addition, a significant number of students apply for an exchange from the Otaniemi campus every year.

In spring 2020, a couple of hundred students from the School of Business were participating in exchange around the world.

‘At first, COVID-19 was spreading in China, and we did not think it would affect our students all that much. Even when the virus landed in Italy, we believed it would only have local influence. However, it soon became clear that the epidemic would apply extensively to all students taking part in exchange. The students were contacted as the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare’s list of epidemic areas expanded from one country to another’, says Planning Officer and Team leader, International Affairs Minna Pekkanen.

In the middle of March 2020, Aalto University decided to summon home all the students on exchange.

‘We conducted a quick survey in which we examined the situation of our students participating in exchange; where each of them was at the time, and what their return plans were. In order to minimise the impact of the interrupted exchange on the student’s progress, the situation of the exchange studies was also examined; how much of the studies had been completed, and whether it was possible to continue studying remotely from Finland. The aim was to complete as much of the studies as possible. Luckily, our partner universities around the world thought the same way’, says Planning Officer Sanna Krigsholm.

In spring 2020, there were approximately 150 incoming exchange students at the School of Business, and more than one hundred of them returned home halfway through the term. However, some 20 students stayed at Aalto until the end of the term, as they felt that Finland was safer than their home country at the time. Aalto University’s successful transition to distance learning made it possible for all interested parties to complete their exchange studies from home.

Turbulence even before COVID-19

Although, from the perspective of student exchange, COVID-19 has been the culmination of international crises, there has been turbulence in the field of international mobility even before the virus. In autumn 2019, the unrest in Hong Kong prematurely interrupted the exchange of several Aalto students, and the riots in Chile, demonstrations in Barcelona and the Australian wildfires caused concern to exchange students residing in the countries in question.

The world has experienced unfortunate events in the past, too, such as the tsunami, swine flu, natural disasters such as earthquakes, numerous terrorist attacks and other types of unrest. Geopolitical tensions and human rights issues have also brought increasing challenges to international cooperation between universities.

‘The School of Business has about 160 partner universities around the world. In the event of sudden crises, all of us working with international student mobility will certainly first and foremost consider whether our students are in exchange in that particular country at that particular time. Fortunately, we have an experienced team that has been involved with a wide range of situations over the years’, says Saila Kurtbay, Head of International Affairs at the School of Business.

Students have a strong desire to engage in international activities

Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, students have headed over to their destination countries and other students have arrived in Finland for exchange throughout the pandemic. Although the number of people leaving and arriving for exchange has been smaller than before, the exchanges have caused more work due to numerous cancellations, postponements of academic terms and different forms of study.

Students have had to tolerate a lot of uncertainty, as when they were selected for the exchange, it was impossible to know the COVID-19 situation or entry restrictions in the destination country at the time of their departure. Many students have only cancelled their exchange at the very last minute due to entry restrictions or for other reasons. The situation with the pandemic has also forced many students to settle for a remote exchange from Finland. Over the past couple of years, exchange students arriving at Aalto have also included dozens of students who have completed their exchange remotely from their home country.

‘Our students have not lost their eagerness to participate in international activities. On the contrary, despite the uncertainties, student exchanges are seen as an important part of studying and accumulating work-related skills. In the current academic year 2021–2022, almost four hundred students from the School of Business were interested in exchange studies, and as many as 500 students applied for student exchange for the academic year 2022–2023, which is the highest number ever’, says Saila Kurtbay. 

As a positive consequence of the pandemic, the use of technology in teaching and learning has increased. It is now also possible to gain multicultural and international experience through online learning if, for one reason or another, students are prevented from leaving for the exchange.

The School of Business has been involved in setting up the European Common Online Learning (ECOL) network together with six top universities in Europe. Within this framework, a total of 250 students from the network universities have already participated in courses during the academic year 2021–2022. In addition to the Aalto University School of Business, the ECOL network includes the University of St. Gallen from Switzerland, ESADE Business School from Spain, Rotterdam School of Management from the Netherlands, Universita Commerciale Luigi Bocconi from Italy, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien from Austria and Copenhagen Business School from Denmark.

The International Affairs team of the School of Business includes:

Saila Kurtbay

Saila Kurtbay

Head, International Affairs, School of Business
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