Some questions for international HE to consider in 2021

The transition between years is a time for reflection. ‘Top 10’ lists review the best of the previous 12 months, and ‘resolutions’ focus attention upon the weeks to come. Like virtually every part of our lives these days, however, that transition has felt different this time.

While there was a temptation to bid adieu to 2020, and not think of it again, there are important lessons to be learned from this unusual year.

And while there was also a temptation to declare that the arrival of vaccines meant that normalcy would soon follow, we know that not only do challenges still remain, but we must also summon the energy to consciously chart the course forward.

As January speeds by and we drift further from 2020, let me offer some personal thoughts in a professional context on what we have learnt and how that might affect universities’ internationalisation activities in the coming months.

Asking ‘Why?’

With numerous health, social, economic and other crises worldwide, the stakes seemed much higher in 2020. Full understanding – drawing upon best-available evidence – was widely seen to be critical. And with resources to address global priorities stretched so thin, accountability also rose in prominence.

Thus, we all asked, ‘Why?’ – ‘Why are we doing what we are doing?’.

No matter what the issue, a pervasive sense of urgency meant that we wanted to ensure that our actions were indeed the best ones we could take to advance well-being. The importance of ‘Why?’ is a message that I will take forward.

Within universities, contributions to the ‘Why are we doing this particular international activity?’ discussion will come from many.

Any actions, many will say, must be consistent with addressing the world’s most critical issues: combating climate change; prioritising equity, diversity and inclusion; increasing resilience; and so on. Indeed, they will continue and the Sustainable Development Goals should be the ‘go to’ rubric against which any proposed activity should be evaluated.

But others will foreground particular local contexts – national priorities, sub-national regulations and, that most local context of all, the individual university itself. What are the university’s priorities as reflected in its planning and strategy documents, and what are its needs, given the day-to-day operations that it must sustain? How does, they will continue, any particular international initiative serve to advance those ambitions?

To be clear, all priorities will not necessarily point to the same answer. Nevertheless, leaders will have to make decisions about universities’ international activities. The more that one can catalyse open discussions about ‘Why?’, the better one’s decision-making processes will be, the better one’s decisions will be and the more likely one’s stakeholders will stay engaged through implementation.

Asking ‘How?’

Events in 2020 also illuminated the importance of collaboration – collaboration across disciplines, across communities, across sectors, indeed across borders of all kind. Thus, when the ‘How?’ question is inevitably asked – ‘Now, how can we take this international activity forward?’ – I will immediately think about what kind of collaboration is best.

Universities are complex organisations, and international activities can connect with virtually any part of it – an individual, a unit or the institution as a whole. And that connection can take many different forms as well.

Sometimes the ‘How?’ will be best answered with a simple bilateral connection – namely, one university with another one abroad. Indeed, when an initiative is focused, specific and-or limited, this kind of link may well be best.

Similarly – yet also paradoxically – when an initiative requires extremely high levels of trust, it might be best pursued with a single, tried-and-true partner.

At other times, a grouping may be most appropriate – for instance, five to 10 partners from around the world that have a similar structure and-or attitude. With ‘open lines’ to communicate on issues, the similarities that exist among these partners from different locations around the world serve to allow quick access to multiple perspectives on any of a range of common challenges and opportunities.

Yet at other times, a larger association may be best – that is, hundreds of institutions from around the world that have signalled their commitment to engage internationally and that have been vetted to a set of accepted standards by a convening entity. The strength here is truly in the numbers – and in the diversity that the numbers serve to foster.

When well-curated, an association like this vastly increases the likelihood of creative ‘collisions’ fortuitously happening and supports a breadth of understanding.

More effective internationalisation

The need for universities to internationalise effectively is now more important than ever. The lessons learned from 2020 can serve us well in 2021 and beyond.

Our collective reality is that there are a near-infinite number of internationalisation possibilities involving universities. There are, however, only limited resources available to execute whatever ones we choose.

In light of any opportunity being presented, we need to be able to have frank, evidence-based discussions about ‘Why?’, followed by close considerations of ‘How?’ with a full slate of options in view.

If we get this right, then we can all spend more time doing the best things in the most appropriate ways. As a result, not only will we in universities be better off, but so too will society more broadly.

Ian H Rowlands is associate vice-president, international, at the University of Waterloo, Canada.