HE should be the global voice of internationalisation

If the global pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how interdependent we all are. What happens to one of us can – and increasingly does – impact all of us.

But while we’ve learned this lesson through the negative experience of a deadly pandemic, we can apply it toward building a better world for everyone by recognising the mutual responsibilities of our deep global interdependence. When we do, we’ll realise that helping others, particularly the most vulnerable among us, is not charity but one of the best investments we can make in helping ourselves.

If only it were that easy.

We live in a world primarily organised around states. That’s why it was not surprising we were caught off-guard when the COVID-19 crisis began late last year. Pandemics and most of our biggest problems are global, but the ways we have organised to address them are predominantly national. The World Health Organization did not have the capacity or authority to gather the necessary information and respond quickly and forcefully to the crisis because our states designed it to be weak.

The same fundamental problem is making it all but impossible to collectively address our greatest global challenges – from pandemics to climate change and ecosystem destruction, from systemic poverty and inequality to proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Until we fix this fundamental mismatch between global problems and non-global solutions, we will be in grave and growing danger. To safeguard our future, we need a new global operating system.

A third pillar of global influence

The foundation of this new approach must be an individual recognition of our interdependence. Its manifestation must be an empowered and fully inclusive global movement of people of all backgrounds, a third pillar of global influence supplementing our essential national governments and international institutions.

I’ve recently become actively involved with an exciting new non-profit, OneShared.World, which is looking to do just that. Founded in the early days of the pandemic, OneShared.World is working to build a future where we all can come together to solve our greatest common challenges, for ourselves, for our children and for future generations.

Their mission is to generate an active, global voice to address the mismatch between all peoples’ essential rights and common needs and the shortcomings of our leaders and institutions.

Higher education, and international higher education, in particular, must play a fundamental role in generating this active global voice.

Higher education and interdependence

At their best, higher education institutions are hubs of interdependence through bringing people together on their campuses and their realisation that scholarship cannot be done in isolation. For hundreds of years, universities and colleges have created and shared knowledge to develop generation after generation of global thinkers, leaders and doers. They have faced the world’s problems and nurtured the communities and ideas to help find solutions.

In our ever-more interconnected world, today’s global challenges can’t be solved by one person, or one university or one country. They’re not unique to one place. These are problems that will take the collective action of students and scholars around the world working together.

COVID-19, for example, has changed how the world and higher education does science. Cross-border collaborations have increased significantly. Studies are being made available in online repositories months before they would ever make it to journals. National borders have not stopped researchers from sharing hundreds of viral genome sequences. Hundreds of clinical trials have been launched in 2020, bringing together universities, hospitals and labs from around the globe.

Early in the pandemic, researchers at Johns Hopkins University realised the interdependent nature of the crisis and the need for a centralised repository for data on the pandemic. Out of that realisation came the Global COVID-19 Dashboard and subsequently the Coronavirus Resource Center, resources used widely around the world to help people visualise and combat the spread of the virus.

A study on the nature of scientific globalism found that countries have increased their proportion of international collaborations and open-access publications during the pandemic. This is good news. Another study suggests that cross-country collaborative research is more impactful (as measured by citations) than research authored by scholars in a single country.

University leaders from around the world have noted increased collaboration among their institutions, as they all struggle to address the needs of their communities during the current crisis. These increased ties should generate collective learning that helps to create a better world, suggested David Garza, rector and executive president of Tecnológico de Monterrey, during his participation in the 2020 edition of the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit.

The U7+ Alliance of World Universities, launched in 2019, is a coalition of university presidents dedicated to defining concrete actions universities can take to collectively address global challenges in coordination with government leaders worldwide. The first summit in Paris included leaders from 20 countries and 47 universities. Despite the restrictions resulting from the current global crisis, alliance members have worked together virtually over the past year in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The recently launched Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) is another grassroots initiative formed by international education practitioners from around the world coming together to address a major global issue. In addition to hosting topical events, on their website CANIE lists specific actions that institutions and individuals can take to make a difference.

Going forward

These are just a few examples of how new models of interdependence are playing out in higher education around the world. We need more.

At this moment in history when nationalism is rising in many parts of the world, the higher education community must strongly confirm its commitment to internationalisation.

Internationalisation is often thought of as domestic students going abroad or international students attending university in a foreign country. While these are two absolutely critical aspects, at its fullest, internationalisation is a way of thinking that is evident in all aspects of campus life.

It’s an institutional realisation of and commitment to our global interdependence and the need to train the next generation of young leaders, engage with diverse voices and work together to address our collective problems. It’s about students from different cultures and backgrounds studying together and faculty working together across borders with partners in ways that empower everyone.

Of course, there are and will continue to be challenges to realising the fullness of our interdependence, including visa challenges for international students, a lack of funding for international work and restrictions on material and data sharing, to name a few.

But the key to our progress is and must be working together, building bridges, not walls. Only together can we build OneShared.World.

Michael Kulma, a senior public education professional, is currently a senior advisor at OneShared.World, after having served as the senior director of global programs and resource development at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.