Whatever dark turns our times take, academic exchange must continue

In a crisis-shattered world, global university networks have never been more important. They are built on principles that matter and principles that aim for a better future: cooperation, mutual understanding, celebration of difference and pursuit of shared values.

These principles have guided Universitas 21 since its inception, and we hold fast to them as we negotiate the stormy present and work with our staff and students to model how the world could and should be.

Our network was formed 25 years ago, brought together by research prowess and international engagement. Strong relationships have developed between member institutions, and our programs extend to research, student mobility and leadership. And the experience of the past two years has convinced us that the value of a globally connected grouping of like-minded institutions has never been greater.

Of course, the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic have forced us to re-evaluate our methods. But our online interactions revealed the critical value that a global network can play in times of crisis. As the pandemic took hold country by country, leaders of our member universities were able to draw on the experience of others to inform their own responses to lockdowns and the shift to online delivery demanded by Covid. -19.

Our virtual interactions were private, open and deep, allowing us to challenge each other and engage in a very different way than before. The value of such non-competitive collegiality cannot be underestimated and is one of the powerful strengths of a global network.

During the pandemic, our network has also become very good at virtual student mobility. Rather than the pandemic being an obstacle to our study programs, bringing them online has allowed thousands more students to access them. Virtual delivery has provided an unexpected inclusiveness dividend.

Research is an inherently global practice, and despite the cold winds of nationalism and populism, scholars know well that the answers to sustainability, climate change, Covid-19 and the enormous cost of big physics will not be found. within their national borders.

That said, while international research has continued during the pandemic, Universitas 21’s support for early career researchers has a particular need for face-to-face connection, and has therefore suffered. We hope to quickly reconnect this vital pool of researchers.

Additionally, when members are spread across multiple time zones, it is impossible to hold full virtual meetings of all members. So while online engagement between senior executives will become more common, meeting face-to-face in one place will remain the only way for global members to come together.

More generally, post-pandemic universities will factor climate change considerations – as well as budgetary considerations – into their commitment to internationalization and will deliberately travel when restrictions allow. For international networks, this means focusing on the lessons of the pandemic in terms of how they can better support students and faculty as they confront the opportunities and scars of our post-pandemic world.

Data from Universitas 21 shows that our members have actually used the network more during the pandemic. And it is important to note that our experience is not unique.

My assessment is that, having experienced the value that a network offers and seen the opportunities and possibilities available to us, members of the network will seek even deeper collaborations. They may already be able to engage as a group with external organisations; the network already has a mutually beneficial partnership with PWC, for example.

As for nationalism and populism, universities, with their international openness, are a natural counterforce. And global networks, in particular, can ensure that global connectivity does not collapse during difficult times.

Whatever dark turn our times take, international academic exchange will continue to grow. And whatever happens in their own country, university administrators will always find more support and courage among their foreign peers.

Sir David Eastwood is the former President of Universitas 21 and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

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