Universities have a critical role to play in this crisis

The world has never faced a pandemic like this. Globalisation contributed to the speed at which the virus spread across borders – technology offers many important strategies for responding. Although we will certainly get through this, we will never return to ‘normal’ as we knew it before.

There is no time for political posturing or debate. Our immediate priority everywhere must be to protect ourselves, our families and our neighbours; fight the spread of the virus; and do everything possible to mitigate the damage. We do not know how long this crisis will last, so institutions should take action now.

All post-secondary institutions have a critical role to play in this crisis. In addition to providing important services, they continue to be a major source of research that produces solutions to problems like this one and must continue to be supported and protected.

Our educational institutions must be involved in the following ways:

1. Clearly those universities with medical schools and hospitals need to continue to operate. These hospitals often provide services to marginalised populations that do not get care elsewhere. Universities with residence halls can offer space to overflowing hospitals. University leadership must focus on protecting medical staff, providing them with necessary resources, and doing everything possible to keep these facilities open.

2. The health of our students, teachers and staff is at risk. For their own safety, everyone not critical to campus security or essential services must be removed from campus to protect them from uncontrolled exposure.

3. Where institutions host international students, they must assume responsibility for these students’ safety and well-being if travel to their home country is not possible.

4. Institutions should extend their commitment to ‘extension’ and address the needs of students whose need for food and shelter may have been exacerbated by the emergency and institutional closures.

5. Progress towards degree completion will be impeded for thousands of students throughout the world. We should not, and cannot, excuse students or teachers from the obligations and responsibilities they would have had in more normal times. Putting courses online is our best option at the moment. Clearly, few students, professors or administrators were prepared for this shift but everyone, all over the world, is rising to the challenge. Continuing online is an option we must offer our students despite the challenges to our instructors and support staff.

6. Institutional leadership must support and monitor the efforts of instructors. Of course, quality will vary while this transition takes place but there are resources, tutorials and support services available to all, if not from their home institution, then extensively online. The learning curve will be steep, but quality will improve with experience, flexibility and the willingness to accommodate extraordinary circumstances. New mechanisms to assess quality will undoubtedly be needed.

7. There will be concerns about professional qualifications with so many institutions experimenting with new delivery methods. This is something that will need to be addressed later but is not sufficient reason to halt the transition to online.

Inequality has always haunted higher education but is perhaps more evident than ever during this crisis. The fact that some students have easier access to technology than others or that some instructors are more comfortable with technology than others cannot be a rationale for limiting options for everyone. Institutions must make every effort to make courses available on as many devices as possible – phones, tablets, desktop, TV – to maximise access.

Most institutions were slow to leverage the potential of new technologies. If there had been more openness and flexibility sooner, perhaps the transition could have been less stressful. Higher education will not likely be the same as before the pandemic. Virtual education will certainly be a much more significant means of engagement from now on.

There is no perfect response to this emergency. If we delay while reviewing statutes, researching best practices, or waiting for people to adapt to internet instruction, we will lose precious time. We must offer options while we adapt to the current reality as best we can. We are in the situation best described by the metaphor, “We need to repair the bicycle while riding it.”

Scientists have been predicting for quite some time that a pandemic was inevitable, but they have not had adequate funding to develop solutions. Too many politicians chose to ignore the warnings. Politics did not cause this crisis, but politicians have certainly contributed to the conditions that have left us unprepared.

The focus of our institutions must be on public health and what we can learn from scientists as they learn more about this virus. Institutional leadership must do everything possible to support our researchers and teachers as they strive for solutions.

Politicians must assume an active leadership role now to support all of our institutions towards the best outcomes for our countries. Allowing ourselves to be distracted by individual, local or national political agendas now will be at the peril of us all.

Raúl Atria, vicedecano, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad de Chile.

Jorge Balan, New York, United States.

Elizabeth Balbachevsky, Dr, Priv Doc, associate professor, Department of Political Science, University of São Paulo; director, Center for Public Policy Research (NUPPS), University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Andrés Bernasconi, profesor de educación, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.

Javier Botero Álvarez, consultant, Colombia.

José Joaquín Brunner, director, Cátedra UNESCO de Políticas Comparadas de Educación Superior, Centro de Políticas Comparadas de Educación (CPCE), Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile.

Hans de Wit, director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.

Ana Fanelli, investigadora del Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) en el Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad (CEDES), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Jocelyne Gacel-Avila, associate dean for social sciences and humanities, researcher, University of Guadalajara, México.

Kelly Henao, Asociación Columbus – Francia investigadora – Centro de Internacionalización de la Educación – Universidad de Groningen, Colombia.

Marcelo Knobel, rector, University of Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil.

María José Lemaitre, executive director, CINDA, Santiago, Chile.

Alma Maldonado-Maldonado, investigadora, Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE-CINVESTAV), México.

Salvador Malo, director, Aseguramiento de la Calidad en la Educación y el Trabajo (ACET), Ciudad de México.

Francisco Marmolejo, education advisor, Qatar Foundation.

Mónica Marquina, investigadora, CONICET, UNTREF; profesora, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Carlos Marquis, investigador, Universidad de San Martín (UNSAM); consultor en educación superior, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Iván Francisco Pacheco, consultant in higher education, research associate, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US.

Marcelo Rabossi, profesor de educación, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Alberto Roa, rector, Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar, Cartagena, Colombia.

Liz Reisberg, consultant in higher education, research associate, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US.

Jamil Salmi, emeritus professor of higher education policy, Centro de Políticas Comparadas de Educación (CPCE), Universidad Diego Portales, Chile; research fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US.

Dante Salto, assistant professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, US.

Daniel Samoilovich, director ejecutivo, Asociación Columbus, Paris and Geneva.

Simon Schwartzman, Academia Brasileira de Ciências, Brazil.

Lina Uribe-Correa, rectora, Fundación Universitaria Konrad Lorenz, Colombia.

Jeannette Vélez R, CEO, Glocal Actions and Solutions GLOCCALS, Colombia.

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A Spanish translation of this declaration can be found here. A Portuguese translation can be found here.