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Becoming an academic while immobilised: International academic mobility and global inequality in higher education

Jenna AlthoffS.jpg

Picture by nccr – on the move, 2020.

For early-career scholars, mobility is an important component of their professional development and often a prerequisite for career advancement. Becoming immobilised by the global pandemic has created a disruption that laid bare the downsides of academic mobility while simultaneously inciting a reappreciation of the interactions it used to fuel. Taking the personal experience of a suspended fellowship as an example, this article demonstrates both the value of mobility within academia as well as the emerging questions and challenges in the face of a persistent need for isolation, immobility, and innovation in interaction.


It was an exciting prospect. In January 2020, I had been selected for a competitive fellowship at a leading research centre in my field. I was to start working there in late spring 2020, so during the last few months before moving I devised elaborate plans on the many activities, encounters, and goals for this limited but hopefully intensive work stay. After a prolonged period of employment dominated by the experience of a single office in a glass tower off campus, I had been invigorated by the very thought of mingling left and right with an engaged crowd of fellow researchers. Joyful anticipation was in the air.


When in early spring I had organised the moving and the travel itinerary and everything else that this move required, the pandemic hit in Western Europe, and in between one government announcement and two emails, I found my carefully crafted plans of moving countries frozen indefinitely. Instead of embarking on long discussions of the latest developments in my field with new esteemed colleagues, I was confined home, worried about close family members vulnerable to this new virus called SARS-CoV-2.


Beyond rendering my organising efforts futile, I worried about the lack of progress in my work, missing on chances to advance my career, and the towering uncertainty. All of this loosely overshadowed by an anxiety about fundamental changes to job markets, economies, and also the social relations we were going to find ourselves living in after this time of lockdown. 


Relationships between mobility and education – prerequisite, driver, outcome


In Western Europe, educational mobility is a fundamental track for many young people to move into adulthood by acquiring the foundation for a professional life, emancipating themselves from their parents, and building relationships outside their family settings. This ‘fleeing the nest’ is a vital period to gain the skills for building their futures. Numbers vary considerably across EU countries on when exactly young adults leave that ‘nest’ and move into their own space, but without a doubt that step is regarded as substantial. 


The estimated birth of more than one million ‘Erasmus babies’ is a testament to the profound and lasting effects such international educational mobility – specifically academic mobility – has on European youth. For me, academic mobility means that I have spent more than 8 years of my adult life living outside my country of birth. It also means that my presentation skills are way better in English than in my first language, that I have friends in most EU member states, I can swear even in Romanian, and cook with hot pepper and garlic as much as with capers and cream. 


And while educational mobility is ever-increasing among young people globally, a much smaller percentage of these choose to make ‘education’ and ‘research’ their profession. Meaning that they will embark on an additional (and potentially mobile) educational path to gain the academic degree that allows them a career in this field – usually a PhD degree and some more years of postdoctoral work experience. With the transition to becoming-an-academic, further mobility is involved: some young researchers choose to pursue their PhD studies at specialised and renowned institutes abroad, some embark on longer fieldwork for data collection, certainly all of them will travel for conferences and workshops in their respective fields, and eventually will happily relocate to take up a position that matches their qualification. 

Looking at the full journey of becoming-an-academic, mobility is not just a result of education, and a side-effect to a career in higher education, but often also a prerequisite for embarking on such a career path in the first place. Access to mobility at all stages of the educational path (degree in higher education, doctoral education, early career in higher education) is crucial to this profession. The current pandemic has certainly changed the way academia is accessible and what kind of mobility is needed to access it. 


Mobility as privilege, mobility as pleasure


With the suspension of my fellowship, I could feel the interruption to that anticipated progression into academia-as-profession. I was stuck without a prospect of moving on anytime soon, and without the perspective of finding an adequate equivalent job outside of academia either.


At the best of times, I tried to value this involuntary pause of my plans as a moment for appreciating life in the moment, yet it was overshadowed by uncertainty and anxiety for a future that had seemed so close ahead and had become unattainable. The consequences of the pandemic for my fellow academics range from a complete annulment of their fieldwork semester, to cancellation of entry positions, or indefinite delay of research projects. Conferences and dissertation defences have been moved online and whole graduations ceremonies celebrated solely on screen.


Experiencing the effects of this immobilisation on my own trajectory, I felt a novel set of ‘mobility rules’ applied to my whereabouts, different from those imposed upon me by my gender, my nationality, or other attributes of my existence. Abiding by this new set of rules underlined the value of previously taken-for-granted mobility. Having perceived the various forms of mobility that my status as an academic afforded me – conferences, summer schools, fieldwork, fellowships – merely as a pleasurable side-effect, I now regard them as a precious privilege. Friends got confused, asking me whether my research focus on migration governance had not prepared me for various restrictions and their effects. I chuckled, but inside I struggled to come to terms with how ignorant I had been on the work realities of many of my fellow colleagues who experienced restrictions to their (academic) mobility long before this current pandemic hit. I simply had never questioned their access to mobility. 


Far from having served as an equalizer in the grand scheme of things, the pandemic has nevertheless highlighted to me the dissonance between an increasingly internationalising and diversifying academia, and the hierarchical effects of inequality and of immobility. COVID-19 may have forced universities to reckon with online teaching and learning but the global competition between universities to attract (and retain) researchers and faculty does not seem to follow these same dynamics.


Main components to further mobility in academia are the nationality(ies) of the individual and their private resources as well as the university’s resources and networks to facilitate mobility. Barriers of access to world-class education exist inter alia via limiting the mobility of (prospectively stellar) students by means of which a hierarchy of academic mobility is produced and reproduced. The hierarchical effect of immobility so clearly experienced by myself during the pandemic has been a structuring reality for so many of my fellow colleagues around the world. The internationalisation of higher education has meant a global hierarchization of academic career paths for so many long before the pandemic. However, the pandemic has acted as a powerful reminder of the existing inequality of global mobility regimes and access to education, and their lasting effects on personal developments. 


Moving (away from) inequality in academia


Sooner or later, two currently distinct but interlinked debates will need to be answered concurrently for the mobility of academics: how will work look like after the pandemic?, and; how will higher education look like after the pandemic? 


If the process of becoming-an-academic will rely less and less on actual physical mobility, how will socialisation into different departmental and national academic cultures be achieved in the future? This question opens avenues for thinking more in terms of creating and curating personal networks across former boundaries, bringing to the fore novel questions of access and exclusion. The pandemic will not be the panacea for abolishing mechanisms of advancing some over others, but it will certainly redraw the boundary-making processes currently in place. The way that universities grant access to their knowledge production in the future, the departmental attitude towards engaging in exchange, and the personal abilities of researchers to enter productive work relationships are all part of this redrawing. The outside pressure of being in lockdown, with all its isolation, has also had the effect of inciting this much-needed debate within academia. The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a powerful reminder of the existing inequalities in access to mobility and the lasting effects on personal developments and career paths. What would be a better time than now to start improving the system?


Ultimately, I ventured over the border to embark on this new chapter of building relations. Fearful to be held back by a second wave, I passed the frontier without as much as having my passport checked. By now, I have already enjoyed a first coffee with fellow researchers over our different writing strategies, a conversation with the project leader on the coding of the project data, had a lovely chat in the hallway on local integration concepts, and am in the process of developing a full-fledged research project idea with a professor. But while I sit alone in the office writing this text, I cannot help but wonder how mobility in academia might look like in the future. Our lives are built on this very premise of being mobile, so how will academia change if this mobility can no longer be taken for granted?



My thanks go to the whole nccr – on the move team and specifically Prof. Gianni D’Amato for facilitating the fellowship, which has also provided the inspiration for this article.

Jenna Althoff.jpg

Jenna Althoff

Jenna Althoff is an advanced PhD candidate in the Doctoral School of Political Science, International Relations and Public Policy at Central European University (CEU), Budapest/Hungary, and founder of CEU's migration research group. She is currently a visiting research fellow with the Swiss centre of excellence on migration and mobility research, the nccr – on the move, at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.


Her own research covers political-institutional contexts of migration regulation and governance, narratives on and media representation of migration, (evaluation of) integration measures, and mobility within and across labour markets. She is always up for a good joke and a plate full of pasta, and does not mind a sip of Barbaresco to go with either.


If you are interested in following her curated selection of research publications, news articles, and other information related to migration & mobility, join her on Facebook under: Migration Policy in a European Context. She can be contacted at


Picture by Stefan Roch.

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