International academic mobility is a catalyst for renewal

Cross-border knowledge sharing is core to higher education and must be preserved, say 33 university leaders in a joint statement on global academic mobility 

June 29, 2020
Around the world

International academic mobility has been a cornerstone of universities dating back as far as the 12th and 13th centuries when it began to flower across Europe. With a clear understanding of the multiple benefits of academic mobility and the rich and diverse learning environment it created, the University of Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, adopted the Constitutio Habita, an academic charter that ensured and protected the rights and free movement of a travelling scholar in the pursuit of education. The widely referred to concept of “academic freedom” today stems from the idea of this charter.

Mobility took on a broader dimension with the emergence of humanism in Europe in the late-15th and 16th centuries. Scholars and scientists including Copernicus, Vesalius and the Dutch humanist and philosopher, Desiderius Erasmus, began to flock to universities in neighbouring countries to immerse themselves in new cultures and discover new sources of knowledge and fresh perspectives on the physical and spiritual worlds.

Latin, the lingua franca of university education at the time, greatly facilitated mobility, much like English does today, and made possible the cross-pollination of thoughts and ideas that gave way to a European renaissance marked by the rediscovery of classical philosophy, art and literature.

Later, sea travel made way for the sprouting of universities on new continents, further extending opportunities for international academic mobility and reinforcing the importance and need for knowledge sharing.

We can’t deny the enormous impact internationalisation has had on national universities over time. In the past three decades, cross-border collaborations in research have prompted huge advancements in science and health, engineering and technology, social and business sciences, and many other fields.  

Major industries have succeeded in expanding globally thanks to the possibility of recruiting diverse talent from universities around the globe. Campuses have also become platforms where dedicated and ambitious youth from multidisciplinary and multicultural backgrounds gather and create start-ups that revolutionise markets and sectors. Through scholarship programmes and new online formats, universities have also had impact and improved access beyond their borders. Clearly, there is no substitute for the enriching learning and teaching environment made possible through the internationalisation of higher education institutions.

International academic mobility in all its forms has had moments of great growth, but has also suffered many setbacks. Although the impact of political and international agendas on higher education institutions has been constant throughout time, in recent years the sector has witnessed increasing tensions around mobility resulting from increased populism, nationalist tendencies and strong anti-immigration discourses in public discussions.

Restrictions placed on international mobility in specific countries and regions have influenced top faculty and talented students’ decisions on where to study or continue with their academic careers. Due to these limitations, cross-cultural partnerships and alliances between universities have become more necessary than ever. Mobility programmes like Erasmus+ have allowed for students and educators to gain international and intercultural competencies that increase personal and professional development.

The current Covid-19 pandemic has altered higher education as we know it and has put into question the educational models of many universities. The extent to which cross-border mobility will be impacted in this new paradigm isn’t yet clear, although universities may be seeing important drops in foreign student enrolment and international scholar recruitment.

Many study abroad programmes and other cross-border activities for students and faculty have also been cancelled at least for the near future. Despite these setbacks, the current crisis has awakened new opportunities for education and cross-border collaborations through the use of technology. Covid-19 also offers a chance to reboot and reshape academic mobility, making it more inclusive and more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability is a global priority and will need global solutions. By committing to educate responsible and globally minded students, universities can help navigate this crisis and contribute to building a more sustainable and equitable world.

The long list of pressing concerns for most universities at this time cannot be avoided, and compromises will have to be made. We will need to work to make our campuses safe for our faculty, students and staff by applying the necessary protocols and taking the appropriate measures to reduce risks in order to pave the way for a full recovery of our educational activities. But in the process we cannot lose sight of the importance of keeping collaboration and mobility alive even as we adapt to our new reality.

International academic mobility has weathered many storms since its early beginnings and will most likely be faced with new threats and challenges in the years to come. But with every obstacle that is overcome and every threat that is appeased, universities will have acquired greater resilience, agility and awareness. Cross-border knowledge sharing and mobility are at the core of higher education institutions and must be preserved. Universities must work together alongside public administrations to ensure this is accomplished.

As leaders of institutions worldwide, we commit to the following elements of a shared vision:

  • Ensured cross-border collaboration and nurturing of diverse and globally minded talent with a special focus on sustainability.
  • The maintenance and furtherance of cross-border knowledge sharing for the collective well-being of society.
  • Leveraging technology in higher education to enable maximum levels of interconnectedness and exploring more environmentally sustainable and equitable ways to connect across borders.
  • Collaborative efforts within the higher education ecosystem to streamline cross-border flows of talent and knowledge.
  • Global collaboration to identify effective health-related protocols that guarantee safe university campuses and at the same time facilitate international mobility.
  • Strongly embedded and upheld policies, actions and activities of diversity and inclusion across our educational institutions. Leading by example, we will foster and promote much-needed tolerance, respect and equality across our academic communities and the higher education sector as a whole.

Fred Swaniker, founder, African Leadership University, Mauritius

Fadlo R. Khuri, president, American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Christina Paxson, president, Brown University, US

Rutger Engels, rector magnificus, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Ahmad M. Hasnah, president, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), Qatar

Lawrence S. Bacow, president, Harvard University, US

Koichi Tadenuma, president, Hitotsubashi University, Japan

Santiago Iniguez, president, IE University, Spain

Edward Byrne, president and principal, King’s College London, UK

Umran Inan, president, Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey

Andrea Prencipe, rector, Luiss University, Italy

Anthony Grayling, master, New College of the Humanities, UK

Martin Paul, president, Maastricht University, The Netherlands

Ignacio Sánchez Díaz, rector, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile

Liu Wei, president, Renmin University of China, China

Frédéric Mion, president, Sciences Po, France

Lily Kong, president, Singapore Management University, Singapore

David Garza, rector and president-elect, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico

Dame Minouche Shafik, director, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK

Peter Mathieson, president, The University of Edinburgh, UK

Alejandro Gaviria Uribe, rector, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia

Federico Valdes, rector, Universidad del Desarrollo, Chile

Felipe Portocarrero, rector, Universidad del Pacífico, Peru

Lucas Grosman, rector, Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina

Carlos Montufár, rector, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador

João Sàágua, rector, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa (NOVA), Portugal

Gianmario Verona, rector, Università Bocconi, Italy

Isabelle Huault, president, Université Paris Dauphine-PSL, France

Santa Ono, president, University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada

Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Julio Frenk, president, University of Miami, US

Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, rector, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria

Peter Salovey, president, Yale University, US

This is an edited version of the joint statement issued at the IE University’s Reinventing Higher Education Conference on 29 June, 2020.

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