Let knowledge flow freely

The global nature of higher education is its greatest strength, which is now under threat from the effects of Covid, nationalism and industry competition

September 3, 2020
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The power of the THE World University Rankings, published this week, is that they are global.

By developing data definitions that allow international comparison, the rankings allow a view of performance on a universal scale.

That is entirely fitting for research-led universities, whose power also resides in the fact that they are global. It mirrors the nature of research – both the collaborative process and the nature of knowledge. It is also in tune with academic careers, and with learning, both of which thrive as talent and ideas flow freely around the world.

But at a time when political tensions have ratcheted up, and following the shock delivered by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a host of threats to a model that previously seemed unassailable.

Across many Western higher education systems, the inevitable decline in international student numbers will put huge pressure on university finances. We know very little about how the shift to online delivery of courses will (or won’t) change the landscape in the years ahead; while science nationalism, and concerns about intellectual property, have surged as tension between the US and China has grown.

Speaking to me this week at the THE World Academic Summit (delivered remotely, of course), Michael Ignatieff, president of the Central European University, said that like many leaders, he had “no idea” how many of his (largely international) student cohort would turn up this year.

While this is primarily down to the public health crisis, he warned that nationalist politics (something the CEU knows more about than most, decamping as it is to Vienna this year after being forced out of Hungary) was compounding the problem dangerously.

“New visa regimes, that democratic and authoritarian regimes alike are putting in place, are a choke chain around the neck of the internationalisation of higher education,” he said.

“We glory in globalisation, and higher education has benefited incredibly from it, but is now at risk. And I don’t see in a Covid-19 world how we are going to maintain it.”

The risk of this trend to universities comes at a time when they face a host of other challenges.

Those identified by Ignatieff include diminishing respect for academic freedom and freedom of expression – including, he suggested, from within higher education – and the risk that universities lose their place as the “validators of knowledge, of what is true and false”.

This could be the way in which scientific knowledge has been disputed during the pandemic, or the idea, growing in confidence, that corporations might replace universities as the key drivers of the knowledge economy.

For Ignatieff, “the key to the future of universities is whether they continue to be critical of the societies they serve, but at the same time accountable and responsible to the societies they serve. If they cease to be so, someone else will take their place – there are no guarantees they will be around for another thousand years.”

It is a warning to take heed of in an era of such profound and far-reaching turbulence, and one that is echoed by Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, in our cover story this week.

Asked what his key criteria would be for the perfect jurisdiction in which to establish a new university, he said that having open borders for academic talent was crucial, alongside an ironclad commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression.

It is worth acknowledging that neither of these is necessarily within a university’s gift.

What is, however, is a commitment to the values that define a university, and which have done so for a thousand years, and for Ignatieff, holding on to those foundations is the only viable strategy.

“I don’t think you can do these jobs unless you love universities. Unless you really believe in what they do and are impatient with their failures to live up to their ideals. Unless you really believe in knowledge and that moment of incredible excitement when you see a light go on in a student’s eyes – that’s what you live for. When you forget the mission you can get discouraged, but when you go back into a classroom you are reminded why this is so exciting, and why universities are the most central institutions to modern societies.”


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