Universities must remain international after the pandemic

Higher education institutions are inherently global and they thrive because of their openness, not in spite of it, says Duncan Maskell

August 30, 2020
Mural of a winged healthcare worker with Australian animals
Source: Getty

The academic year at the University of Melbourne gathers momentum at the end of February, accompanied by great enthusiasm and optimism, but this was quickly tempered this year by the rapid onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The necessary immediate response to suppress the pandemic has resulted in a serious threat to the university sector that is perhaps the greatest crisis to confront higher education in Australia in its history.

This is sharpened in Australia given that overseas students currently constitute a large element of our enrolments. The demand for an Australian education has grown steadily among international students. The current funding crisis for Australian universities started the moment that national borders were closed and has worsened with the lengthening of the closure. Closing the borders was a key and brave early decision by the Australian government, and it undoubtedly contributed enormously to the country’s initial success in controlling infection rates. But one of the many negative consequences is that it has meant that the future enrolments of our overseas students have been seriously jeopardised.

This crisis in the sector ripples through Australian society, with the economic effect on the universities being amplified in the national economy. Estimates that the sector faces cumulative losses of about A$19 billion (£11 billion) over the next three years, mostly through lost international student revenue, translates into a A$40 billion loss for the wider economy.

While the economic threat from the pandemic is clearly crucial, the threat to the current model of higher education must also concern us. Our ability to work on university campuses is greatly compromised; the teaching and learning experiences of our students are very different from what they were expecting; and the vital global connections that enable great research collaborations must be rethought.

This threat to our established way of doing things has had a cathartic effect in driving us to rapidly bring forward various plans, especially concerning online learning. There is no doubt that these changes are here to stay, and that we must develop these offerings to fulfil their potential as modes of delivery. But we must also recognise that we still need human interaction, community building, the ability to meet someone spontaneously and ask them a question, and socialising to provide a genuinely broad educational experience for our students. Our university campuses and environments will remain essential and must be reimagined as they are reactivated.

The context in which the pandemic hit the world was already very challenging, with greatly increased tension between some of our most powerful nations generating clear difficulties for universities trying to work internationally. We live in a time when important matters of justice and injustice within societies are coming increasingly to the fore, leading to the resurgence of old and unresolved tensions, reflected, for example, in the recent worldwide and profoundly important Black Lives Matter protests. Perhaps particularly problematic for university people is that the practice of respectful, balanced reasoning and argument is increasingly being replaced by the appeal to force, emotion, anger and fear.

At this challenging moment in history, universities have a special, dare I say essential, role to play. The moment calls out to universities everywhere to show their mettle through intellectual leadership. The world’s challenges are our challenges, and we must do everything we can to understand and respond to them, whether through finding solutions to specific problems or by exploring what it is to be human in these changed circumstances.

Universities can provide this leadership by modelling those things in which they should naturally excel: education embedded in the interrogation of knowledge; the encouragement of diverse viewpoints and robust but always respectful exchange of ideas; concomitant research programmes feeding strongly into the interrogation of knowledge; and true innovation, whether this is to invent a new solution to a problem, or a new way of thinking about a key question for humanity.

This contribution is essential to first suppressing the spread of this new infectious disease, and then living alongside it.

A key question is: can we take measures to protect those most vulnerable to the disease, especially the old, without causing irreparable damage to the rest of the human population as a consequence of those same protective measures? How can we strike the correct balance between preventing deaths from the infection in this acute phase of the pandemic versus deaths that will occur in the medium- to long-term as a consequence of the social and economic damage caused by those same measures taken to prevent the immediate deaths.

These are deep conundrums posed by our new reality, and they require input from our economists, our ethicists and philosophers, our social and political scientists, our lawyers, and thinkers from a plethora of other disciplines before they can be sensibly answered. The world is already moving out of the phase where medical science alone needs to take the lead in fighting the pandemic, and into the phase where the social sciences and humanities have a central role to play.

We may even perceive that our new reality is not actually all that “new” given all the other infectious diseases that have existed throughout the history of the world, and indeed currently still exist in many parts of the world.

In emerging from the pandemic, education must be one of the most important things we can support as a society. That education must be provided within a profoundly international framework. It must be an education in the broadest sense, and in all fields of interest, from the medical, biological and physical sciences right through to the arts and humanities.

Students everywhere remain hungry for education and knowledge in every field, and in times such as these, we can expect them to grow keener. This has been the pattern before in history, and the evidence at mid-year 2020 is that this growing appetite for education is here again. We can expect the next few years to be a time when people will want to go deeper, to explore social and natural reality more fully.

Universities are inherently international institutions. They thrive not despite a great historical tradition of attracting the best, most curious minds from everywhere on the planet, but because of it. Our staff and our students are drawn to our universities on this basis.

When Europe’s first universities emerged during the Middle Ages, they were highly international institutions: extraordinary when you consider how arduous travel was in those days. The University of Paris emerged in 1150 with four different faculties, each with its own language. Its great motto was “hic et ubique terrarum” – “here and throughout the world”. Our students come from all the lands throughout Australia, and they come from every continent and almost every nation on earth. Our international students are a vital part of who we are, as a globally relevant institution. They are dedicated, intelligent people who are keen to learn and keen to make something of their lives. All our students display the courage required to put oneself to the test, to arrive in a new environment, and to attempt to learn deeply about a subject. I am full of admiration for them, and I take great pleasure in seeing them grow as people while they are here.

Our students provide us with a great, historic opportunity to influence the next generation of workers, citizens and leaders, across many countries, not least, but not only, in Australia. For anyone who cares about the world, it is an opportunity not to be missed.

Duncan Maskell is vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 will be published at 12pm BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit, which will explore the challenges created or accelerated by the pandemic and identify new opportunities for progressive reform. 


Print headline: Face the world. Embrace the world

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