We must still keep fighting for greater internationalisation

It’s this element of higher education that will help universities make a quick recovery after this unprecedented crisis, says Steve Smith 

March 26, 2020
Building blocks
Source: iStock

These are extraordinary times. Just a few weeks ago – even a few days ago – who could have imagined the scale and speed of the upheaval we are all living through. And to think, just six weeks ago we were all worrying about Brexit.

At Exeter, as at all UK universities, we’re responding to this pandemic. We’re preparing parts of our campus to be used to support overflowing hospitals; our labs are adapting to perform Covid-19 tests; all our teaching and learning is moving online; many people in our teams are working with the local health services to provide equipment, facilities and people; and we are working closely like never before with our local communities and services.

As a sector, we are looking over the edge into a very significant financial abyss – with most institutions being able to cope with reduced finances, albeit at the cost of investment in major student and staff facilities – but most worryingly we are uncertain where the bottom will be. This crisis feels to me to be like no other. I honestly think it will change us, and how we operate, teach and research forever.

Throughout this crisis we will face horrors; there will be institutional challenges on a scale we have never known, but there will also be innovations and new ideas which bring positive benefits in the future.

Universities are already thinking creatively about how to get through this year, but we will need a massive and co-ordinated effort to ensure that, when normality returns, we can recover quickly. This will be important for universities and, crucially, for the country because of higher education’s economic contributions. With our international teams and our outstanding research community, which is contributing so much to the fight against coronavirus as well as to broader national prosperity, we can be proud to say that universities will have a key role in helping the UK bounce back.

And through our many links and networks around the world, we may also have a significant contribution to make to the recovery in other countries. Transnational education, for example, is already a success story for the UK – and I predict it will become more important following this crisis, as universities think about diversifying the ways in which they reach international students.

At home, on the other side of this crisis we are going to have to think about what we can do to help local, regional and national economies recover. What more could we do together, for instance, to attract inward investment in our research system? How might we play a bigger role in bringing in foreign investment to the UK and supporting the national infrastructure for export?

We will also have learned a lot: we will have seen rapid innovation in online teaching tools and methods. As professionals we will all be so used to working remotely and via online platforms that in some cases we will never go back to our old habits. We’ll get time back that would have been spent on trains and planes. And those carbon-zero targets won’t look quite so impossible – or so I hope.

So the future won’t quite be what we imagined it would be. But I think it is worth saying that the long-term goals we have set ourselves may largely remain unchanged.

Had the world not been turned on its head, we would have shortly seen the publication of the government’s refreshed international education strategy. We would have been celebrating the reintroduction of post-study work visas for international graduates, and the launch of the new Global Talent Route for researchers. Perhaps we would have been talking about where the government could go further – but we would also be celebrating the recovery of demand in India for study in the UK.

And although the world has been turned on its head – all of these factors remain in play. They will help us when the recovery phase begins.

We must also ensure, when the crisis is over, that we don’t lose the ambition to double investment in research funding – although who knows what the economic and financial pressures resulting from this crisis will mean. It is possible that it may take longer to achieve the ambition of investing 2.4 per cent of national GDP in research – after all there will be such significant need of public funding to support the very many people whose livelihoods will be destroyed by this crisis. But we must hold government to the ambition in the longer term.

As we navigate this unprecedented crisis, there are four things we should keep in mind.

First, whatever we do, please let us not forget about Brexit and about our relationship with Europe. There is a danger that the immediate and urgent will crowd out the important. One way or another we will have to develop a relationship with the EU and its research and student mobility programmes, but it is genuinely difficult to see how we will have the space to achieve that given the government’s understandable priorities for the new months.

Secondly, it is therefore crucially important that we work out a backup plan for international cooperation and collaboration. One thing is absolutely certain in my view, and that is that this government has indicated in the clearest possible terms that it does not simply value research, but that it sees it and student/staff mobility as central to the future health of the UK economy and society. As a sector I think we are pushing at an open door when we call for a more international, knowledge-based economy and society. The Covid-19 crisis does not alter these fundamentals, so when the present crisis is over, and it will be over, these commitments will set the stage for future government policies and priorities.

Third, we must continue to support international students. Whether it is more transnational education than direct recruitment or whether international student recruitment reverts to its historical trend, the UK has to move decisively towards increasing the percentage of international students studying at all levels in UK institutions. There are many reasons for this, the crucial one is that education and research are becoming, worldwide, increasingly international.

Of course, there is a big question about whether that international student education will be face-to-face or whether one effect of the crisis will be to kick-start a new race to teach in a fundamentally digital way. But the education and research systems that prosper in that world will be those that are international in focus, producing research that combines the talents and insights of leading researchers in more than one knowledge economy, and supporting and educating students in an increasingly, maybe totally, digital way.

Finally, if this crisis has shown us one thing, it is that experts and expertise matter. It is genuinely heartening to see the way in which science has led so much of our policymaking. But equally importantly, universities are going to have a very important role to play in national recovery and rebuilding.

I think the ways in which the sector has responded to this current crisis will further embed universities into their communities, showing that they are truly anchor institutions in their regions. And when the new normal emerges, I have absolutely no doubt that the UK higher education sector can and will be in the vanguard as we build our post-coronavirus society and economy.

While there can be no doubt that these are dark days, unprecedented in my personal experience, I am humbled by what we have shown we can contribute to our communities and to society. Therefore, as we move towards the future, I think our universities and the outstanding staff we have in them will be set for a period of growth, of success and of supporting the very best developments in international education and research.

Sir Steve Smith is vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter.

This is an abridged version of a speech Sir Steve delivered at Universities UK and Universities UK International's online International Higher Education Forum on 25 March, 2020. There will be further IHEF online sessions in the week beginning 20 April.

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Reader's comments (1)

If developed countries continue to pursue internationalisation efforts in the way they have been doing for years then they will only attract those who have money to beat the financial burden associated with getting the degrees on offer. The big problem with this is that those degrees on offer through internationalization are not workplace relevant. Secondly, this approach maintains the gap between the privileged or those who can afford such programs and those who cannot and the consequent prestige gap between these two groups. Thirdly, this approach reduces the likelihood of interdisciplinary collaborations because all graduates and lecturers display the bounded rationality associated with their disciplinary specialization. Moreover, this approach in the long term also perpetuates the development gap between developed and developing countries primarily because none of the universities pushing internationalization seems to facilitate the empowerment of people in the develop in world as a primary objective. all of this will remain because those who manage internationalization efforts have their biases against people in developing countries. All societies, developed and developing have similar needs and face similar problems but on a different scale. All countries, developed and developing, emerged from a long history of violence. However, the world constantly hears that people are the most important resource and the need for international cooperation, borderless world etc. If internationalization of higher education is to make any meaningful impact globally as it always claim to want to do, then it's primary objective must be problem solving on a scale that would bring a fairer approach to development. This would require enlisting the competencies that abound everywhere in the developing world. It would require that university administrators currently behind internationalism efforts deciding to move away from their colour coded practices, employ and collaborate with their brothers in developing countries like Africa and the Caribbean. Indeed everyone knows and agreed that a chain is as strong as its weakest link whether that chain runs across Europe, Asia, Caribbean or all these regions. Hasn't the corona virus done enough to convince the world, developed and developing countries that we must work together. Indeed the health care sector is at its wits end trying to cope so too would internationalization efforts be if developed and developing people's do not work together. The major challenge for the Internationalization of higher education is not finding or management systems or student mobility but the inherent biases of those pushing it. The issue when we as teachers are behind out students to participate in our lessons and they are slow or not catching on quickly enough is not with the students but with the manner of our teaching.