Rothwell: local links thriving in pandemic ‘must be retained’

Manchester v-c says Covid response has transformed inter-university and regional government collaboration in city

September 1, 2020
A young man blows soap bubbles at the Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester city centre
Source: iStock
A man blows soap bubbles at the Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester

The closer links forged between universities and with governments during the Covid crisis “must be retained” by the higher education sector in the long term, a vice-chancellor has urged.

Dame Nancy Rothwell, the University of Manchester president and chair of the Russell Group, said that the pandemic had led to much greater collaboration between universities in Manchester, and with local and regional government, as she spoke at a session on “the relevance of place in a digital world”.

The university has always had a close relationship with Greater Manchester regional government “but it’s been enhanced” with regular meetings during the crisis, she continued.

She added that “for the first time”, the five vice-chancellors of the Manchester universities “have had weekly or fortnightly” meetings, to understand and share information on the pandemic, to share findings of Covid research and share facilities.

The “greater local, national and international collaboration” seen between universities and with governments “must be retained” in the future “once we, hopefully soon, get back to somewhere near normal”, Dame Nancy said.

It would not make sense for the University of Manchester to seek to compete with local universities that specialised in technical provision or degree apprenticeships, she argued. So there was now a plan to “set up a forum for all universities and colleges in Manchester to work together”, she continued.

Tassew Woldehanna, president of Addis Ababa University, told the event that his university, which has a hospital and is Ethiopia’s leading trainer of doctors, has been doing collaborative research with international institutions on a potential vaccine. Meanwhile, its engineering department has been producing protective equipment for medical staff, and the university has also been advising the Ministry of Health on how to cope with the pandemic, Professor Woldehanna said.

While the pandemic had forced the university to drop international exchange links with North American, European and Chinese universities, it had also provided an “opportunity” in online learning, where the institution had previously been “scared” to venture.

“We learned it the hard way,” he added.

Rania Kassem, dean of students at the Asian University for Women, located in Bangladesh, said that the collaboration between universities in the pandemic had shown the need for them to come together to help the “world’s ever-growing vulnerable population”, highlighting the refugee crisis in particular.

Dame Nancy summed up the session by saying that although the universities led by the three participants were different in many ways, the pandemic was creating shared experiences: all three universities were facing concerns about losing international links, “all seeing how the pandemic has highlighted inequalities”, and all going through a transformation on digital learning.

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