University networks are key to solving crises like Covid-19

Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus has been impressive but fighting future global emergencies will require greater collective effort, says Chia-Ming Hsueh

April 28, 2020
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Browse the full Impact Rankings 2020 results

The Covid-19 pandemic has already been the most severe blow to human life since the Second World War. Since the outbreak in December, there have been more than 3 million confirmed cases and over 200,000 deaths. More than 160 countries have closed university classrooms, affecting more than 90 per cent of students across the world.

Taiwan is one of the very few countries where people can still live as usual and go to work and school every day. It is not only because Taiwanese people learned a lesson from the Sars epidemic 17 years ago, but also because the government rapidly integrated manufacturing, medical services and technology to prevent the spread of the virus when it first learned of the outbreak at the beginning of January. After quickly gaining a footing in the fight against Covid-19, Taiwan started to help other countries by acquiring surgical masks, offering equipment to medical professionals, and implementing new technologies to fight the new disease.

Taiwan has long attached great importance to public health and its national health insurance system enjoys a strong international reputation. In recent years, many technological applications have been introduced to promote smart medical treatment and improve the efficiency of hospitals. Elsevier’s database shows that 73 per cent of recent academic papers in Taiwan that relate to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to SDG 3 (good health and well-being), compared with a global average of 68 per cent. Two Taiwanese universities feature in the global top 10 of the latest Times Higher Education Impact Rankings for SDG 3.

During the time of Covid-19 prevention, Taiwan's higher education system has closely cooperated with the government and maintains mostly normal operations. National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), ranked second in Asia and 38th globally in the overall Impact Rankings 2020, took the lead in pushing many measures, such as delaying the start of the new semester for two weeks, developing daily online questionnaires for students and staff to report their health and body temperature, and pasting QR codes in designated spaces on campus to track the movement of students and staff.

NCKU also hosted an International Virtual Forum on Covid-19 on 21 April, focusing on how Taiwan’s government and universities reacted against the virus and exchanging ideas regarding higher education in the post-Covid era. It attracted more than 150 international scholars and professionals from NCKU’s partner universities and groups including the World Universities Network and Southeast Asia and Taiwan Universities alliance, and broadened the vision of the higher education community.

Research teams are also translating knowledge to improve the efficiency of epidemic prevention. For example, National Taiwan University has developed a mobile application combining demographic data, public transportation, and medical records of citizens to predict the risk of infection. NCKU has employed a “smart healthcare clinical decision support system”, which has shortened the process of doctors deciding whether a patient should be reported for hospital quarantine or at-home inspection from 2.5 hours to just 30 minutes, and provided a “smart-monitoring wristband”, which monitors the wearer’s body temperature and heart rate, for students in home quarantine. All these are examples of responsible actions of universities, demonstrating their social impact.

The coronavirus crisis is testing the fabric of our international community. But it will not be the last crisis we have to face. Fighting global emergencies like Covid-19 in the future will require greater collective effort of people around the world, including higher education networks.

As more universities engage in responding to the SDGs they will have a greater sense of the responsibility that all global citizens have to make the world a better place and to cooperate and contribute in times of need. We should realise that the SDGs are not just goals, they are a means to balance human beings, society, and nature; and the THE Impact Ranking are not just a league table, but an opportunity for universities to review their contributions and learn from each other.

Chia-Ming Hsueh is assistant professor in the Office of Research and Development at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU).

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