Could COVID-19 improve North-South collaboration?

In June 2020 University World News reported on the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for higher education capacity building efforts in the Global South. A long tradition of face-to-face North-South cooperation had been transferred overnight almost entirely to virtual cooperation. Professionals in the field expressed relief that this change was made quite successfully but feared the longer-term effects.

Slightly more than a half year later, the same professionals suggest, on the basis of their experiences, a brighter future is ahead, although they say uncertainties remain. What is certain is that things will never be the same again.

A year after the beginning of the global spread of the pandemic, three things stand out with regard to higher education capacity building in the Global South.

Continued efforts to build capacity in higher education and research in universities and other knowledge institutions in the Global South remain as vital as ever and are needed more than ever now to overcome the consequences of the crisis.

The crisis, however, has also brought innovative initiatives that are increasingly viewed in a positive light and are therefore likely to remain on the menu.

And there is a growing awareness that there is no way back: global university cooperation targeting educational capacity development will not return to how things were before 2020. Which is not to say that the future looks all bright and shiny.

The situation remains urgent

As for the future of capacity building in higher education, what remains as clear as it already was before the pandemic is that higher education access, especially in the Global South, needs to be expanded urgently.

This implies that current higher education capacity needs to be expanded, quantitatively and also qualitatively, to produce sufficient graduates who are better prepared to serve both their local societies and the global community that they are part of. This is essential to enable the achievement of the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, both in local contexts and on a global scale.

Curricula need to be updated and improved, staff and students’ skills and abilities to act as future globally connected knowledge workers need to be developed. This is a critical challenge to tertiary education around the globe, but arguably a bigger one in the Global South. The changes needed require close cooperation with partners in the Global North, similar to what is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

In short, the need for continued cooperation between universities in the Global North and South to enhance education capacity that is critical to achieve global sustainable development is beyond doubt.

More than just words

Though universities around the globe have expressed good intentions and ambitions concerning their global commitments in response to the crisis, it remains to be seen whether they will live up to these pledges when tough choices have to be made.

Will there be the time and energy and sufficient (financial) support for such global collaborative efforts in a world preoccupied with recovering from the current crisis and possibly caught up in a rat race for strong positioning in the emerging post-COVID global landscape?

What’s more, the looming economic and financial crisis in the coming years may result in a shortage of funding of initiatives aimed at supporting the common public good.

Meanwhile local fallout from the current crisis may have severe consequences: the closure of all schools in Kenya for almost a year, for instance, must have unavoidable consequences for the future educational achievements of its huge youth population – including their prospects in higher education later on. Many countries face comparable challenges.


Many forced innovations in North-South cooperation efforts during the pandemic may turn out to have unanticipated positive effects.

Global travel restrictions have meant that actual travel and visits have become difficult and will probably remain so for some time. The resulting shift to almost exclusively virtual cooperation has had mixed blessings so far.

Of course, less intercontinental travel is greener. However, professionals see many problems if cooperation to strengthen Southern institutions’ capacity to deliver state-of-the-art education is to be done entirely without in-person visits. This makes it difficult to socialise with staff and students at the partner institution.

Worse, many students and staff and sometimes whole institutions lack an adequate infrastructure for virtual cooperation, leading to unbalanced participation on the Southern side.

It is also impossible to get a real sense of the context in which education is delivered and its impact on students in the classroom and on how students learn.

Most of all, when problems and misunderstandings arise – an unavoidable situation – it is almost impossible to deal with them adequately from a distance.

Many ongoing efforts are already reported to be suffering considerable delays as a result. “I just should go there now – but I can’t,” one desperate colleague told me last week.


However, these disadvantages are counterbalanced and may be outstripped in the end by the significant bonuses offered by virtual cooperation.

To start with pragmatic considerations, virtual cooperation saves so much time. In a profession where travel used to absorb a full working day, that is a big advantage.

Professionals in Northern institutions boast they can now have a meeting in Asia in the morning, in Africa in the afternoon and in Latin America in the evening, with a global network meeting somewhere in between.

For professionals in the South the same holds, including meeting with partners in other parts of their own huge countries and continents on one same day.

Interestingly, many report the rapid spread of working with Zoom, Teams and similar applications and that what is learned in a specific working relationship with one partner is easily introduced in other partnerships.

Also, the perceived problem of missing out on social contact, although perhaps not solved yet, is being addressed: new virtual social tactics like icebreakers of all sorts help here. As one colleague observed: “Where there is a genuine need, there will be a virtual solution in due course.”

Moreover, the disadvantage of unequal access to the internet and to virtual networks for more peripheral communities seems relative and temporary – the pick-up rate of technology and its latest applications is unprecedented.

And there are already indications that instead of being excluded by the new developments, formerly disadvantaged groups and individuals may get easier and greater access to university programmes, international cooperation, virtual networks and the like.

A colleague working in a programme in Eastern Indonesia reported an example. A major university on East Java which operated a complicated ‘cascade model’ of transferring capacity building to several smaller universities on isolated East Indonesian islands found that replaced overnight by a model in which representatives of all the universities were participating in virtual webinars to receive training and advice directly from various international partners. That worked better and much faster than the earlier approach.

Another colleague reported from an African project how the enforced change to virtual education brought accelerated curricular innovation and a significantly improved curriculum which is to become the standard for similar programmes in that particular country.

Colleagues at Northern universities involved in capacity building in the Global South confirm that a virtual way of working allows for a much faster circulation of new knowledge and practice: what is used successfully in one programme can be applied much more easily and faster in others – even though it may have to be adapted to fit local realities.

An accelerator of innovation

Everyone agrees that it will remain necessary for university staff working in capacity building in the North and South to travel to actually meet and work together. At the same time almost all agree as well that virtual cooperation entails so many unanticipated advantages that it will change ways of working irreversibly. It already has and it will reduce the need for travel substantially.

As one African colleague put it: “The COVID-19 pandemic should be seen as an accelerator of innovation, with digital solutions leading to more inclusive approaches and boosting virtual mobility and intercultural competences across the sector.”

At best, the lasting result of this unprecedented crisis might be that is has brought long-needed changes in educational capacity building for the Global South: rapid innovation, outreach, increased access, more inclusion and greater diversity. And, globally, it has brought greater balance in relationships too.

Han Aarts is the director of the Maastricht University Centre for International Cooperation in Academic Development, the Netherlands. E-mail: