Universities commit to advancing mobility post-pandemic

Thirty-three university presidents from more than 20 countries have launched a manifesto calling for mobility in higher education to be a catalyst for ‘resilience and renewal’ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the face of tension caused by right-wing populism.

The statement, published on 29 June, stresses the vital importance of preserving all forms of international mobility.

The signatures were led by Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, president of IE University, Spain, and included Edward Byrne, president and principal of King's College London, United Kingdom; Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, United States; Fred Swaniker, founder of African Leadership University, Mauritius; Frédéric Mion, president of Sciences Po, France; Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia, Canada; Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University, the Netherlands; and Koichi Tadenuma, president of Hitotsubashi University, Japan.

The organisers are hoping many more university leaders from around the world will sign up to it.

The statement says international mobility in all its forms has had moments of great growth but has also suffered many setbacks.

“Although the impact of political and international agendas on higher education institutions has been constant throughout time, in recent years, the sector has witnessed increasing tension around mobility resulting from increasing populism, nationalist tendencies, and strong public anti-immigration discourses.

“Restrictions placed on international mobility in specific countries and regions have influenced the decision of top faculty and talented students on where to study or continue with their academic careers.

“Due to these limitations, cross-cultural partnerships and alliances between universities have become more necessary than ever. Mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ have allowed for students and educators to gain international and intercultural competencies that increase personal and professional development.”

The statement also warns that the COVID-19 pandemic has “altered higher education as we know it and has put into question the educational models of many universities”.

The pandemic may lead to “important drops” in foreign student enrolment and recruitment of international scholars on top of the cancellation of study abroad programmes, the statement says.

But the current crisis has also “awakened new opportunities for education and cross-border collaboration through the use of technology”, and “offers a chance to reboot and reshape academic mobility, making it more inclusive and more environmentally sustainable”.

“Sustainability is a global priority and will need global solutions. By committing to educate responsible and globally minded students, universities can help navigate this crisis and contribute to building a more sustainable and equitable world.”

The declaration commits signatories to a shared vision of:

• Ensured cross-border collaboration and nurturing of diverse and globally minded talent with a special focus on sustainability.

• Maintaining and furthering cross-border knowledge-sharing for the collective well-being of society.

• Leveraging technology in higher education to enable maximum levels of interconnectedness and exploring more environmentally sustainable and equitable ways to connect across borders.

• Collaborative efforts within the higher education ecosystem to streamline cross-border flows of talent and knowledge.

• Global collaboration to identify effective health-related protocols that guarantee safe university campuses and at the same time facilitate international mobility.

• Strongly embedded and upheld policies, actions and activities of diversity and inclusion across our educational institutions. Through unwavering example we will foster and promote much-needed tolerance, respect and equality across our academic communities and the higher education sector as a whole.

Endorsed by university leaders

At an online conference launching the statement, 15 university leaders from across the world formally endorsed the declaration.

The event was organised by IE University (a private non-profit business owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL).

Most participants felt that online education presented exciting new opportunities, but this was contested by a few, including Umran Inan, president at the Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey, who argued that the recent forced increase in online learning had exposed its flaws.

Inan contended that “university education is an appointment between generations and needs to take place on campus”. This was endorsed by Carlos Montúfar, rector at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, who said: “Students want face-to-face education.”

Iñiguez opened the conference by quoting Cardinal John Newman’s definition of a university as “an assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot…consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter”. Iñiguez argued that universities could play a role in combatting nationalism by working more closely together.

This was followed by an introductory panel, moderated by Fabrice Rousselot, editor of The Conversation, France, who asked five university leaders about mobility in the current climate.

Fadlo R Khuri, president of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, said that before the pandemic the university had seen its largest intake of international students but that “COVID-19 has affected everything”.

Ignacio Sanchez Diaz, rector at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, agreed that the pandemic had been a huge challenge because students had only been able to meet online and it had been difficult for them to complete their assignments.

Peter Mathieson, vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, UK, explained that prior to the pandemic British universities had already been very concerned about the threat to the Erasmus+ student exchange programme.

Edinburgh University has more mobility via the programme than any other British university and “we fear losing that with Brexit”, he said.

Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami, US, pointed out that every year in America one million foreign students greatly enrich universities, in both economic and knowledge terms.

‘Critical for survival of planet’

“If you can offer an 18-year-old the experience of meeting people who think and look differently, a sense of global citizenship can be created, [and this] is critical for the survival of the planet,” he said.

How can social interaction be promoted? asked the moderator. Lily Kong, president at Singapore Management University, replied that it is important to remember that students are social beings who learn with their peers and through the cut and thrust of debate.

Specifically, this means that gamification apps, for example, should be designed to draw out opposing views and promote interaction. She concluded that technology can enhance but not replace the physical experience as, like the Chinese say: “Reading something 1,000 times cannot replace being in a particular place once.”

Khuri of the American University of Beirut argued that universities have to step up and create opportunities. “We have 200 student clubs and societies,” he explained, “and we can use activities like music and sport to overcome this.”

Mathieson, on the other hand, argued that while people have been impressed with how university collaboration has produced candidate vaccines very quickly, belief in experts is fragile. Experts disagree and that this can lead to the public becoming confused about what ‘expert advice’ really is.

Separately, Mathieson pointed out that while young people are more focused on missing out on social opportunities such as Freshers’ Week, faculty are more concerned about catching the virus; a key challenge therefore is to make the latter feel safe.

The opening panel was then followed by signatories and representatives giving a three-minute presentation on the importance of promoting mobility.

Virtual exchanges

Tadenuma of Hitotsubashi University briefly outlined an initiative with five other universities to promote ‘virtual exchanges’. He explained that these involve an introductory lecture from each university to cover ‘basic information’, followed by students having the opportunity to debate. “It has been very successful,” he said.

Lucas Grosman, rector at the Universidad de San Andres, Argentina, highlighted the fact that at the moment 100% of their teaching is virtual. He said that the university’s first response to the lockdown was “to simply carry on doing what we were doing, but online”, which was followed by “initiatives to try to improve the experience”.

Grosman felt that when ‘normality’ returns there might be an extreme reaction with students demanding face-to-face contact, but afterwards there will be a “new balance” in which the university can take advantage of their new experiences in online learning.

Tania Lima of King’s College London argued that “we need to be more inclusive with more [for example] gender, race and religious representation in everything we do. It is an asset, and we need to live it”, she said.

Vanessa Scherrer, vice president for international affairs, Sciences Po, France, rhetorically asked, ‘How are we going to cope in a post-mobility world?’ “Going international online is better than not going international at all…” she said, “but online education should not replace the real experience.”

Jose Manuel Paez Borrallo, vice-rector for internationalisation, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico, explained that as a result of COVID-19 his university was considering implementing shorter semesters of perhaps five to six weeks each.

Murali Chandrashekaran, vice provost (international) at the University of British Columbia, Canada, concluded by highlighting the ‘astounding inequalities’ in the world and COVID-19’s particular impact on disadvantaged communities. “But we are positive that our university can and must provide greater access to education for all,” he said.