British and Colombian universities are looking to forge closer links as the Latin American country rebuilds its economy following decades of conflict.
The growth of science partnerships over the past decade has been “very significant”, according to Paul van Gardingen, deputy pro vice-chancellor (international and development research) at the University of Leicester, who said that the Bogotá government of President Juan Manuel Santos was “passionate about the role of higher education, research and science”. The 2016 agreement to set up the £20 million joint Colombia bioeconomy research programme is just one example of what is happening.
The peace deal that the Colombian government signed at the end of the same year, bringing an end to decades of fighting with Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels, offers many new opportunities.
Recently, a delegation from nine British institutions, organised by Universities UK International, and covering disciplines from economics to marine biology and even theatre studies, travelled out to Colombia to stimulate fresh initiatives.
Their goals, said delegation leader Colin Grant, vice-president (international) at the University of Southampton, included “PhD mobility at scale both ways” and “developing breakthroughs at university level” that go beyond informal arrangements between individual researchers.
He argued that British universities “can bring expertise to the post-transition process”, in areas such as biodiversity, supporting rural communities, and sustainable forestry and fisheries, while stressing “it’s got to be two-way”.
There are many possibilities for joint research. The National University of Colombia is now carrying out what Professor Grant described as “a game-changing initiative” to produce a census of the ex-Farc fighters. The University of the Andes is developing major expertise in “social pensions”. British demographers could play a role in analysing invaluable new data that they could never have acquired by themselves.
Most unusually, the UUKi delegation included a representative of a small, specialist creative arts institution.
Maria Delgado, professor and director of research at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, herself comes from a family that was exiled after the Spanish Civil War and strongly believes that the arts can help people to “come to terms with the legacy of a fratricidal conflict”. Visiting “centres for memory” in Colombia had opened up discussions that could lead to longer-term collaborations with her institution.
Given that both higher education sectors are now “at a moment of uncertainty”, Professor Delgado stressed that it was crucial to avoid adopting a “colonialist position”, so she took an active part in discussions about promoting Spanish as well as English as a global academic language.
Professor Van Gardingen argued that British universities’ “role in innovation and creating employment” and the level of UK research funding invested in sustainable development could be useful assets to Colombia, although he also noted that the delegation had been challenged not to restrict their involvement to the country’s three main cities but to “get out into more marginalised areas”.
A follow-up meeting was held at the Colombian embassy in London at the end of last month with a view to creating what Professor Grant called “a vehicle for accelerating collaborations and developing system-wide partnerships”. To maintain momentum, more detailed plans will be drawn up within the next six weeks.