Whatever dark turns our age takes, academic exchange must continue

The pandemic underlined the value of international university alliances for sharing problems – and solutions, says David Eastwood

March 26, 2022
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In a world convulsed by crisis, global networks of universities have never been more important. They are built on principles that matter, and principles that seek a better future: cooperation, mutual understanding, celebrating difference and seeking shared values.

These principles have guided Universitas 21 since our inception, and we hold fast to them as we negotiate the stormy present and work with our staff and students to model how the world might and should be.

Our network was formed 25 years ago, drawn together by research prowess and a commitment to internationalisation. Strong relationships have developed between member institutions, and our programmes extend across research, student mobility and leadership. And the experience of the past two years has convinced us that the value of a globally connected grouping of like-minded institutions has never been greater.

Of course, the travel restrictions enforced by the pandemic forced us to re-evaluate our methods. But our online interactions have revealed the critical value a global network can play in a time of crisis. As the pandemic took hold country by country, the leaders of our member universities were able to call on the experience of others to inform their own responses to lockdowns and the move to online delivery that Covid-19 demanded.

Our virtual interactions were private, open and in-depth, allowing us to challenge one another and engage in a very different way from previously. The value of such non-competitive collegiality cannot be underestimated and is one of the powerful strengths of a global network.

Over the course of the pandemic, our network has also become very good at virtual student mobility. Rather than the pandemic being an impediment to our study programmes, taking them online has allowed them to be accessed by thousands more students. Virtual delivery has provided an unexpected inclusivity dividend.

Research is an inherently global practice, and despite the cool winds of nationalism and populism, academics well know that responses to sustainability, climate change, Covid-19 and the enormous cost of big physics will not be found within their national boundaries.

That said, while international research has continued during the pandemic, Universitas 21’s nurturing of early career researchers has a particular need for face-to-face connection, and has therefore suffered. We hope to rapidly reconnect this vital pipeline of researchers.

In addition, when members are spread across time zones, it is impossible to hold full virtual meetings of all members. So while online engagement between senior managers will become more commonplace, meeting face to face in a single location will remain the only way that global members will all be able to gather as one.

More generally, post-pandemic universities will weigh up climate change considerations – as well as budget considerations – against their commitment to internationalisation and travel purposefully when restrictions permit. For international networks, this means focussing on the lessons of the pandemic in terms of how they can best support students and faculty as they confront the opportunities and scarring of our post-pandemic world.

Universitas 21 data show that our members have actually used the network more extensively over the course of the pandemic. And it is important to note that our experience is not unique.

My assessment is that, having experienced the value a network offers and seen opportunities and possibilities that lie ahead, network members will seek even deeper collaborations. They may already be in a position to engage as a grouping with external organisations; the Network already has a mutually beneficial partnership with PWC, for instance.

As for nationalism and populism, universities, with their international outlook, are a natural counter force. And global networks, in particular, can ensure that global connectedness doesn’t unravel during challenging times.

Whatever further dark turns our age may take, international academic exchange will continue to grow. And whatever is happening in their own countries, university administrators will find ever more support and courage among their overseas peers.

Sir David Eastwood is the former chair of Universitas 21 and former vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

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