Relationships vital in post-COVID internationalisation

With international mobility restricted and professional relationships across distances seeming fragile, we need personal contacts more than ever. Among the proliferating internationalisation strategies and formal partnership agreements of international higher education, there is something which universities often overlook – the power of interpersonal relationships.

Effective and long-lasting international and transnational partnerships are built on relationships between the individuals and groups of people who negotiate and develop them. These sorts of transnational learning communities are key to the quality and sustainability of international higher education in the next decade.

The complex communities of staff who need to sustain research and teaching collaborations across geographic distances and disciplinary differences, and students who need to engage in genuinely intercultural learning relationships with both local and international peers and staff are of paramount importance. In the case of transnational education and flying faculty models, there is particular risk in the current circumstances.

So how might we maintain these crucial interpersonal relationships in international and transnational higher education against the background of the current and future COVID-19 crisis?

If universities become more aware of the risks to international and transnational learning communities, it may help to inform the way forward. There are three areas which seem important to highlight.

First, the value of and the risks to interpersonal relationships; second the dangers of ignoring what has gone before, namely the historical and cultural contexts of international and transnational higher education; and finally, the risk of misalignment of agendas in collaborating international communities caused by political turbulence.

Risks of losing interpersonal relationships

If collaborations between universities are relationships between networks of individuals, then interpersonal links are crucial. Individuals already act as agents on behalf of institutions to foster partnerships so institutions should be much more aware of the human part of the process of building partnerships and developing international and transnational education between complex institutions in different cultural contexts.

Universities often fail to recognise the risks to partnership where interpersonal relationships between working groups of academics break down. This could become an even more significant problem where physical mobility is no longer possible.

Fragile relationships between transnational groups of academics also have an impact on student learning communities, particularly in transnational education contexts. So how can learning relationships between staff and students and students and students be sustained?

We will need to work harder at this and be creative, especially against current challenges. There will be a need for ‘team-playing’ across groups of individuals and institutions. Institutions will have to work hard at building trust so that they can maintain belief and engagement from individual academics on the ground.

A genuine sense of trust in local partners and capacity building in local hubs will be important. Otherwise discontinuity may develop in terms of people who are involved in the ongoing partnerships between the institutions and communities and programmes could be affected.

Risks of ignoring what has gone before

Both transnational education or TNE and international collaboration are often built on historical or cultural pasts and universities develop the most successful partnership relationships where there are long histories of collaboration or research exchange.

The most successful and sustained TNE relationships tend to be built on these long-term collaborations, not just between universities but between regions where there is a history of cultural, social or economic exchange.

If we look at China’s first transnational campus outside of China, between Xiamen University in the South East of China and Malaysia, we see that there was a long social and cultural relationship between the city of Xiamen and cities in Malaysia. Xiamen University itself was founded by a Malaysian national and so the choice of a TNE presence in Malaysia was built on a long social and cultural relationship.

Successful learning communities are built on shared values where attention is paid to historical and cultural contexts and the cultural contextualisation of programmes. In the current situation, universities could explore their most sustained international collaborations. This could be the time for deeper partnership with trusted colleagues rather than aiming to build new ventures with new relationships.

Risks of political turbulence

Crisis or change in political contexts (including the current virus outbreak) can cause turbulence in institutional-level relationships. Subsequent misalignments of university agendas in the collaborating countries mean that international and transnational communities could be affected.

Internationalisation agendas work best where there is an alignment between the collaborating universities’ institutional agendas. These agendas are based on institutional values and missions and are part of the transnational learning community. Within an institution, when individual staff and departmental research and teaching communities align with the strategic international agendas of the university, that is where internationalisation becomes a powerful force.

During political turbulence, there is a danger of disruption to the alignment of these agendas and values. Competing priorities within universities could drive a wedge between academic communities and the strategic agendas of the institution. Sudden changes in direction could cause division between collaborating transnational institutions’ shared directions and agendas. Economic issues could be particularly divisive.

This will be a time for higher education institutions in a particular country to work together to make sure that transnational learning communities are not disrupted by misalignments in agendas, in a context of political and economic turbulence.

A missing link?

Interpersonal relationships could become a missing link in sustainable transnational partnerships. Against an increasingly turbulent landscape of higher education internationalisation, we will need these more than ever.

Universities should see risks to learning communities as threats to international partnership. If universities can recognise the value of interpersonal relationships, we might move to a more responsible and sustainable model of internationalisation. In that case, the local communities of the host country can be developed and trusted and transnational collaboration could come into its own in this unpredictable era.

Catherine Montgomery is professor in the School of Education at Durham University, United Kingdom.