Will Covid-19 lead to more equitable research links?

University leaders in the Global South talk about post-pandemic opportunities and power shifts

September 2, 2020
People hugging through PPE
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Much of the debate about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has focused on various forms of inequality. Discussions in the higher education sector have been no exception. While the coronavirus has exposed and exacerbated deep inequalities in the lives of different groups of students and academics there are also hopes that the shift to remote ways of studying and working may lead to a more inclusive academia.

One aspect that it has been suggested could become more equitable is international partnerships. In July, senior scholars said that with most scientists from the US and Europe unable to travel for months due to Covid-linked restrictions, researchers from Africa have taken charge of major international global health projects normally run from the West and shown their ability to lead more research projects in future.

However, when it comes to scholarship on Covid-19 specifically, there has been less international collaboration than would generally be expected from research, according to a report by science technology firm Digital Science, which was published in June. Even in April and May, most publications on the disease involved research from one country, the research found.

Do university leaders in the Global South think that the pandemic creates a new opportunity for them to assert or redefine their value and impact in research? And might it challenge some of the existing power imbalances within international alliances and partnerships?  

Makerere University, Uganda’s largest and oldest higher education institution, which is ranked in the 401-500 band of the 2021 World University Rankings, has significant expertise in infectious diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

Vice-chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe says that while restrictions on travel were “pushing back the agendas of collaborative research” to some extent, the challenges brought by Covid-19 “point to the need for more collaboration” and Makerere’s valuable expertise in the health sciences could be of benefit to “research communities around the world”.

He adds that even universities in the most advanced countries have been “caught off guard” by the pandemic, while institutions in developing countries are having “a lot of success” in coronavirus-related research on treatment and vaccines.

“I think there is a need now to approach collaboration on a more equal footing,” he says. “The universities in the developed countries might have more resources but intellectual capacity is not necessarily also only concentrated in the developed countries.

“I’m beginning to see that people appreciate that…I think the power relations are going to change a little.”

Covenant University, ranked in the 801-1,000 band, has launched a significant new alliance in the wake of Covid-19: in June the Nigerian institution became the first African university to partner with online learning platform Coursera to offer full-scale blended learning.

Through the partnership, every student has access to Coursera’s catalogue of 3,800 online courses, while 30 per cent of the credit units that each student takes every semester have been tied to Coursera courses from other universities across the world.

While the primary reason for the partnership was to fast-track the institution’s shift to blended learning, the private university also hopes it will facilitate collaborations with other Coursera partner institutions and enable Covenant to share some of its own curricula on the platform.

Ada Peter, director of the international office and linkages at Covenant, says that one of the benefits of using an online platform with curricula from other global institutions is that “locally situated universities in Africa will be able to offer better content to students who are not able to come over to the West for international education”, while at the same time students in other regions will be able to benefit from internationally competitive programmes in the Global South that may offer a different perspective.

Aderemi Aaron-Anthony Atayero, vice-chancellor at Covenant, adds that he expects that in the long term the university will have three streams of students: those on fully face-to-face courses, those on blended courses and those on fully online courses, with the largest cohort potentially in the last group.

“This will help solve the perennial problem that we have in Nigeria, which is access to higher education institutions,” he says. “Distance learning will give the opportunity to a large number of students.”

However, Nana Poku, vice-chancellor and principal of South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, which is ranked in the 351-400 band, is sceptical that the coronavirus will be a great driver of international collaboration in general, let alone more inclusive partnerships.

“The impact of the coronavirus on universities throughout the world has been dramatic and in the few short months since a global pandemic was declared, conditions have hardly been propitious for new lines of strategic thinking and collaborative endeavour of the kind that would produce worthwhile international partnerships,” he says, adding that “it is difficult to see how the devastation wrought by the virus might facilitate them”.

“Not only can we not foresee a post-Covid-19 world, we have a considerable raft of challenges ensuring that we are as prepared and adaptable as we can be in anticipation of the next academic year,” he says.

When it comes to the idea of forging more equitable international partnerships, Poku adds that “it is difficult to see how institutions in the Global South − even in countries where the rates of infection have been kept relatively low − can rebalance competitive relationships” during a pandemic.

“New alliances and partnerships might well arise by force of circumstance but, ultimately, universities are recognised for their value and impact by dint of their intellectual prowess − their scholarly output and the quality of their degrees − not by assertiveness alone,” he says.  

Across the South Atlantic Ocean, Vahan Agopyan, rector of the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s top-ranked institution (201-250), says he is “not very worried” about the state of international partnerships.

In his view, research is not nearly as dominated by Western researchers as it was in the past owing to the rise of Japan, China and South Korea, and he believes that the links between universities nationally, regionally and globally have become stronger since the emergence of Covid-19.

“I usually have three or four international meetings per week, something that didn’t happen last year, because we’ve realised that we need each other to work better,” he says, although he adds that the sector still needs to work out “how to do international research projects with less mobility”.

Agopyan adds that his institution forges two main types of university collaborations: agreements involving joint research and student exchanges, and partnerships designed to have a social impact. While he encourages activities like student mobility to be equal, meaning that USP receives the same number of exchange students as it sends abroad, he recognises that language barriers mean this is not always possible.

“When we have links with Europe for the exchange of undergraduate students, usually we receive half of the number of students we send to Europe,” he says.

However, Agopyan believes that there is still a benefit to international collaborations, even if they cannot be equal. He cites USP’s partnership with Harvard in the field of medicine as an example.

“We publish more than 1,000 joint papers per year, so from my point of view this is a very good partnership,” he says. “We are getting a lot of answers from Harvard and at the same time I’m sure that the Brazilian researchers are helping Harvard with a lot of gaps they have in their research groups.”



Print headline: Partnership arrangements reassessed

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