So what are international university networks good for?

In his 20 February piece, “Can university consortia and networks adapt to new normal?”, Gerardo Blanco argues that COVID-19 has so disrupted the functioning of international networks that they face serious questions about their sustainability. As executive director of one of the selective networks that he mentions explicitly, the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), I beg to differ.

Dr Blanco’s thesis is that, in a post-COVID world, a global network like WUN is endangered because its principal function – to burnish the reputations of the highly selective research universities that constitute the membership – is no longer justifiable in a world of greater austerity. Were he right about the major function of the network I would wholeheartedly agree, but I think he has missed the point.

The lifeblood of a university is its intellectual talent – represented in the academic staff and students to whom it is home. Major universities compete hard for the most outstanding individuals and most such universities are well connected internationally because these connections enlarge their access to talent.

It’s no secret that the world’s most successful research universities have on their faculties large numbers of researchers from other countries. These individuals in turn develop informal collegial networks, often with partners in other parts of the world. All this makes the successful research university a truly – and necessarily – global enterprise.

Value added

Given their dependence on international engagement, major universities look to networks like WUN to make that engagement easier, to enlarge opportunity, to increase the impact of collaborative work and, in important respects, to make the whole more than the sum of the parts.

The universities also hold the networks to account. In the case of WUN, the board requires a regular and detailed assessment of impact that shows directly how and where the network has added value.

That value is added in varied ways: in promoting and supporting the mobility of researchers and students, in helping assemble teams of researchers to tackle research problems collaboratively, in directly funding pilot research projects, in undertaking comparative analyses of shared problems such as student mental health and wellness and in developing initiatives to alleviate the devastation of the pandemic.

The key to understanding why WUN is useful to member universities lies in the fact that the members sit in diverse geographical, cultural and legal contexts that shape how they deliver education and support research. The global network capitalises very deliberately on this rich diversity to strengthen research initiatives, to promote instructional innovation and to inform academic best practice generally.

Is virtual networking a threat?

There’s a second and more interesting claim about why networks like WUN will struggle in a post-COVID world: In an environment that offers rich new vehicles for virtual international engagement, universities no longer need the formal linkages provided by global networks and will retreat from them, because individual academics can readily develop their own informal connections. This position confuses the availability of tools with the solution to problems.

The pandemic has hugely advanced our capabilities for virtual networking. We are fortunate to have these new tools, which will help greatly in addressing the challenges that have arisen from the pandemic and will certainly enable some enduring changes in how universities work.

But the tools do not themselves provide the solution to problems universities now face – indeed they have created some new problems – and harnessing them productively can be hard.

The challenges now confronting universities in managing their international engagement are large, complex and mostly new.

The pandemic has extinguished or severely limited traditional networking opportunities – conferences, research workshops and seminars and in-person collaborative visits – that are especially important for beginning researchers.

It has greatly increased the difficulty of sustaining multi-university research collaborations.

It has halted traditional study-abroad and student exchange.

In all these areas universities have struggled to sustain their programmes, and in all of them networks like WUN have stepped up to the challenge, harnessing the new tools now available to launch collaborative initiatives that help member universities mitigate the damage.

Best international practice

The pandemic has also changed universities in many areas beyond those that are explicitly internationally directed. Some of the changes, such as the exacerbation of inequality among both academic staff and students and the greatly increased levels of stress felt everywhere, are damaging. Others, such as major innovations in the delivery of instruction, are potentially beneficial.

All are unprecedented, and universities are navigating them with little relevant experience. Global networks like WUN, drawing on the diverse perspectives that arise from the different geographies and cultures of member universities, provide an unusually rich source of comparative information about how universities can best contend with these varied challenges.

Far from being diminished in this new world, global networks have more to offer than ever.

Peter Lennie is executive director of the Worldwide Universities Network.