Universities must never retreat from international engagement

As geopolitical tensions and political scrutiny mount, knowledge diplomacy becomes both harder and more important, says Shearer West 

October 10, 2023
illustration of two people shaking hands stand on a bridge in the shape of a mortar board to illustrate HE must not retreat from international engagement
Source: Istock montage

On the surface, it might have appeared that the recent agreement on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe was a triumph of pragmatism over politics.

However, the reality is that it was a carefully balanced political calculation by London and Brussels, reflecting a recognition of the importance of the R&D taking place within universities to national and continental strategic interests.

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Although universities across the world have long been subject to significant domestic political attention, they are increasingly finding themselves at the sharp end of geopolitical disputes. Beyond Brexit – and the equally fraught issue of Switzerland’s Horizon association – this is becoming particularly evident in relation to the changing relationship between the West and China, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While there are many challenges for our institutions in this new era, there are also opportunities. For example, the UK Russell Group and Australian Group of Eight leading research universities have just launched a new strategic alliance to strengthen links between the two nations. The particular focus is on areas of research and innovation that are in the strategic national interest of both countries; one aim, for instance, is to take advantage of the unique “innovation chapter” in the recent UK/Australia free trade agreement.

Universities are autonomous, mission-driven institutions hosting a range of staff and student communities with a wide spectrum of values and views. They somehow have to balance the geopolitical pressures with their commitment to facilitating the flow of research collaboration, talent and ideas across borders.

In essence, many universities are increasingly being asked to develop their own institutional foreign policies. This is far from simple, not least because diplomatic relations between states are regularly exercises in strategic ambiguity. At times, it seems as though it is incumbent on universities to decode the nuances of these signals, which can sometimes conflict depending on which part of a particular government we talk to.

In my first term as University of Nottingham vice-chancellor, I delivered an inaugural lecture setting out a vision for a “university without borders”. What I meant was that universities should not be ivory towers, closed off to the rest of the world. Instead, we should aspire to develop relationships with local community, business and industry partners, as well as with international collaborators, that provide life chances for our students, address global challenges or add to a stock of knowledge that will be indispensable to future generations.   

Nottingham’s unique characteristics are a combination of the oldest overseas campuses in the world in China and Malaysia, our outstanding record for graduate employment and our portfolio of research focused on the biggest global challenges, such as climate change, food security and modern slavery. None of this would have been possible if we had pulled up the drawbridge and closed ourselves off from the world.

So how to stay true to our ambition to be a university without borders when borders between communities, countries and systems seem to be more prominent than ever?

The answer, I believe, is that universities must continue to present themselves to governments globally as places that convene, seek common ground, broker agreement and build consensus – not just within our own nations, but internationally too.

This is why Nottingham is launching a programme of events, engagement and dialogues in collaboration with universities, industry and governments across the world to explore the future role of universities at the frontiers of knowledge diplomacy. The answers are unlikely to be found through internalising a discussion that higher education institutions and policymakers are all wrestling with.

We are not naive about the environment in which we are operating. Indeed, it is precisely because of our long experience in this space that we feel able to facilitate a discussion on this topic.

It is clear that international collaboration in certain areas of research will need to be more closely controlled. However, this should not prevent universities from simultaneously maintaining strong relationships with the students, talent and cultures of other parts of the world. The approach of “de-risk but not de-couple” is something that many businesses are adopting. Universities must be similarly pragmatic and should not be held to different standards by their governments.

During the pandemic, our Ningbo Campus was able to host Chinese students enrolled at universities in the US and Australia who were unable to travel to those destinations. While the situation was far from ideal, we were able to provide them with the distinctive campus experience we have developed through the provision of an outstanding British education on a different continent, in a different culture. All parties, from students to their nations, are enriched by such partnerships.

It is difficult to see how disengaging with China will address any of the problems that many Western democracies have with its politics. Indeed, our influence would be diminished if we were not there. 

Historically, when governments have found themselves in disagreement, universities – through education and research – have often provided nations with a mechanism for ongoing exchange. There are limits, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown, but the challenges of our time are rarely limited by geographical boundaries.

Despite the complexity and political nuance required, it is incumbent on universities to continue to play this role. The new geopolitical era requires more knowledge diplomacy, not retreat from international engagement.

Shearer West is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham.

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Reader's comments (1)

Yes, research and education should not be controlled by states or their often anti-science national interests and constituencies. But relatedly, we need to see a return of collegiality and academic autonomy for researchers within and across universities for these global knowledge networks to prosper. Essential but unlikely under the current system.