Covid-19 is an opportunity to reimagine international partnerships

Equitable collaborations are key to ensuring that universities can best respond to the SDGs, says Joanna Newman

April 14, 2020
Ants working together to make a bridge
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Can impact measures capture the true value of a university? It is a difficult task given that universities are, by their very nature, multifaceted: communities of academics, students and practitioners connected through research, teaching and learning, and outreach.

All of us in the sector are familiar with league tables. Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings are an attempt to bring in a different emphasis – one that incentivises research that has applied benefit on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), rather than publications in high impact journals.

While impact measures are useful in highlighting universities’ work to create a positive impact on society, it is worth remembering that the work itself is not new. Higher education has always played a critical role in the development of communities and nations. Research produces the knowledge and innovation needed to solve problems and support evidence-based policymaking. Universities strengthen policy and practice at all levels of the education ecosystem from cradle to grave, as well as driving social and economic development. And the third mission sees universities building civic and community engagement with a wide range of partners.

The SDGs are an intergovernmental, legal framework – a set of 17 goals and 150 associated targets for every government to aspire to achieve, and the best chance we have of solving the world’s most pressing problems.

Three global networks – the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), working in partnership with the International Association of Universities and the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie – are at the forefront of promoting the role of higher education in the SDGs at the highest levels, including the UN.

Universities are increasingly using the SDG framework not only to measure their own impact, but also to excite the imagination of their communities about how they can become directly involved. Universities are integrating sustainable development into their operations, incorporating the SDGs into their teaching and curricula, and developing SDG-focused strategies.

The SDGs also provide a mechanism to develop new kinds of partnership to achieve the ambitious targets – embodied by SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals. Partnerships are key to overcoming barriers to impact, and to addressing the challenges faced within the higher education sector itself.

Higher education is essential to building strong societies. The good news that more people than ever want to go to university is tempered by a lack of qualified staff to meet the massive rise in demand. In Kenya, for example, student enrolment increased eleven-fold in 12 years. Across our diverse network, we see that access to quality higher education is still limited by geography and wealth.

The Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) aims to address this issue by enabling universities in east Africa to share scarce teaching resources through quality-assured, credit-bearing modules delivered through blended learning. This successful model could be scaled up to provide the skills needed to transfer teaching to a virtual environment. As the coronavirus pandemic has seen universities switch to online teaching at unprecedented pace and scale globally, blended learning may well become standard practice in Africa and elsewhere and such skills will be in demand.

More than 17,000 students across Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania are currently benefiting from PEBL modules on topics such as numerical analysis and business research methodology and design, and over 150 academics from 24 institutions have been trained in effective blended learning delivery techniques. The project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and led by the ACU, is an international collaboration of universities based in the four African countries, drawing on the online learning expertise of other partners.

Research holds the key to solutions to the current crisis – from disease modelling to vaccine development – and again partnerships are a critical element. There are encouraging reports that international collaboration has increased during this time of great need. We need strong domestic and research capacity in order to develop local solutions for global challenges.

The CIRCLE (Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement) project, also funded by the DFID and led by the ACU, is strengthening climate change research within sub-Saharan Africa by supporting individual academics as well as working with universities.

All universities and funders have a responsibility to build fair and equitable research collaborations in which benefits and accountability are mutually shared. Equitable partnerships – ones that respond to locally contextualised needs while building the capacity of all those involved – are a key element in ensuring that universities are fully equipped to respond to the SDG agenda.

We are already talking about the long-lasting impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our societies, economies and the higher education sector itself, although the specifics are far from clear. Through all this, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of international collaboration.

While we will need to find new ways of working together, in the short term and beyond, we also have an opportunity – to reimagine internationalisation, to strengthen existing partnerships, and to build new ones that have equity as a core principle.

Rankings have a role to play in drawing attention to the work of a diverse range of universities – not just the most research intensive. In this way, we can truly harness the sector’s potential to create meaningful change.

Joanna Newman is chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.


The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2020 will be published on 22 April at midday BST. Register to attend our virtual THE Innovation and Impact Summit on 22 April here.

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