Innovation and inclusion are the future for public universities

There will be no business as usual post-pandemic, agreed public higher education leaders from five countries at a gathering of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP). There has been an explosion of innovation in teaching and research, the best of which must be part of a future that vigorously tackles inequalities.

While people, universities and countries have faced an array of challenges and disruptions, at the same time research has helped to ease the devastating effects of COVID-19 worldwide and societies have realised the importance of science and of universities as a reliable source of knowledge.

The XIX IAUP Triennial Conference, titled “Innovation and Inclusion: Key priorities for higher education in a post pandemic world”, was held virtually from 29 to 31 July 2021. It was hosted in Mexico by Dr Fernando León García, president of CETYS University and of the IAUP.

This article is part of a series on Recovery and Transformation with Innovation and Inclusion by University World News in partnership with the International Association of University Presidents. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The event was attended by 430 leaders from more than 40 countries and some 80 experts. Innovation and inclusion were overarching themes, and there were special focuses on issues such as accreditation and quality assurance, internationalisation, and leadership and governance.

A session on “The impact of the pandemic on public higher education” was addressed by leaders from Brazil, China, Mexico, South Africa and the United States, and moderated by Dr Thandwa Mthembu, vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology in South Africa.

Innovation and inclusion, US-style

Dr Mildred Garcia of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) said that while COVID-19 was far from over, it was important for leaders to think ahead to what lessons to take from this period – “what has worked, what hasn’t, and what ways of working we want to say goodbye to permanently.”

AASCU represents more than 400 institutions that are focussed on the success of ‘new majority’ students – those who are first in their families to attend higher education, are low-income and-or are students of colour or working adults.

Member universities and colleges educate more than 3.5 million students, and 64% of students in the public four-year institutions receive Pell Grants – financial aid assistance. “Our institutions help students from the lowest socio-economic status into the middle class and beyond.”

The pandemic has intensified challenges, especially in public colleges and universities. “It has forced us to review everything we are doing and try to recover what we can, but not to simply go back to the status quo that was not working for all of our students in the United States.”

Garcia, along with the university leaders from Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, spoke about the very many students who struggled to switch to online learning because they did not have technology or connectivity at home, or a quiet place to study, among other problems.

Inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic cannot be ignored and must be tackled, Garcia stressed. “We cannot go back to the way it was.” COVID-19 revealed the need to “throw out the old playbook” on how to serve students, not with outdated modalities but with new cutting-edge technologies that help all students to learn and meet their critical needs.

From a global perspective, the pandemic has affected international students harshly. In the US, the number of new enrolments of international students dropped by 43% in the 2020-21 year – the biggest decline of any demographic group.

Garcia was president of three institutions before taking over at AASCU. Regarding inclusion, she said: “Leaders need to be authentic, speak about injustice and provide a direction for the institution to take. We must be the role models for the change we want to see in our countries.”

Leaders need to keep communicating, heading campuses collaboratively to create systemic, holistic plans with a clear vision and metrics, and holding people accountable. Leaders must also ensure there are safe spaces to have honest, difficult dialogues using skilled candour. “We must go deep, to make sure we are confronting racism, sexism, ageism and all the ‘isms’ on campus.”

“The beauty is that we have leaders who have grasped the moment and students who are demanding that campuses have adequate conversations about racial, economic and social inequities.”

A massive university in Mexico

Dr Melchor Sánchez-Mendiola, a paediatrician and professor of medical education at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), represented the president, Dr Enrique Graue. UNAM is huge, with 360,000 students and 40,000 faculty spread across the country.

The university sprang into action at the start of COVID-19 with the ‘war cry’: “UNAM doesn’t stop”. This portrayed intensity, passion and the need for continuity. There have been many achievements, some of which Sánchez-Mendiola highlighted.

To reduce the inequality gap, the university opened PC PUMA Access Centres – some 14 centres with more than 4,500 computers to serve 20,000 students. It launched connectivity scholarships for 40,000 students. And UNAM acquired 25,000 tablets with connectivity for vulnerable students.

In June 2020, Dr Enrique Graue initiated huge structural change, creating a new system that mirrored many of the main functions of the teaching aspect of the university, including educational innovation, distance and online education, new education assessment – “critically important, as impact needs data” – as well as programme evaluation, curriculum development, translational educational research, and faculty development, which has also been crucial.

UNAM conducted several studies on the impacts of changes made. One, on perceptions of teaching, was undertaken in June 2020 among more than 500 teachers. While a third felt teaching was worse, nearly a quarter felt it was better. “Which is counter-intuitive and clashes with all the information that we receive via the news media,” said Sánchez-Mendiola.

UNAM undertook another survey in June 2021 of faculty and students, with 13,000 responses. Some 40% of academics and 27% of students felt learning was the same; 38% of faculty and 9% of students said it was better; and 22% of teachers and 63% of students said it was worse.

“Teachers over-estimate how much better learning has been during the pandemic. But students have a very different view; 63% in this large sample feel learning is worse,” he said. With the same reality, we have different lenses to evaluate what is happening in the university. That’s why we need data, obtained from multiple sources.”

Being a firm believer in evidence, Sánchez-Mendiola sought systematic reviews regarding learning loss during COVID-19 – and found only two at the time. One drew on just eight papers. “We have been hearing catastrophic discourses everywhere. I don’t want to minimise the impact of the pandemic, but we need data,” he continued: “Otherwise we will only have rhetoric.”

One fascinating study from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, with almost 500 students, found an increase in performance, in test scores as well as study patterns. UNAM, too, did not record drops in performance in large-scale admission and diagnostic exams. Interestingly, one statistically significant decrease in performance was in Spanish.

Still, there are multiple negative impacts on students and faculty, he stressed – on mental health, biological health, financial circumstances, socio-emotional well-being, psychomotor skills learning, and on environmental and political circumstances and happiness.

Technology is not the only answer. “Time and time again, systems can domesticate technology.” Universities need new models and a ‘framework of adaptability’ to prepare for future crises, Sánchez-Mendiola concluded – models that allow universities to make required changes “while maintaining stability, promoting equality and expanding substantive freedoms and well-being”. Key components of adaptability are cooperation, inclusion and flexibility, he said.

A Brazilian experience

Dr Vahan Agopyan is a scholar of engineering and president of Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP), a large institution with some 90,000 students – two in five of them postgraduate – and Brazil’s leading research university, producing 20% of the country’s total research output.

Professors have described COVID as biological and the pandemic as social, he said. One of the ways this manifested locally was in numbers of victims per 100,000 people, with four times more people in the most deprived areas falling victim than people in the richest areas.

“The pandemic has made the social gap in Brazil extremely visible: 20% of the population survives without any public support.” said Agopyan. “They do not exist for the welfare system and have no housing, formal jobs, education or health care.”

The fight against the virus has faced serious difficulties. One has been lack of action by the government. At the same time, society has realised the importance of knowledge and science to solve the current debacle and has been using universities as a reliable source of information.

“Inside universities, the pandemic has accelerated the change of daily activities that normally would have taken much longer to be absorbed by their respective communities. COVID-19 has been a catalyser for innovation within institutions.”

It also helped to demonstrate that modern tools can have positive impacts on teaching efficiency. For instance, online classes can help students who have failed a course, or missed sessions. Students can prepare ahead of time for lectures, and revise their content. “It is clear that USP will not return to the past.”

Internationalisation is of utmost importance for a university like USP, as a highly efficient tool of quality assurance, Agopyan continued. It had been essential to keep international cooperation sharply in focus, despite it being a time of restrictions to mobility. Competitiveness, which had been encouraged, has been transformed due to the public’s urgent need for results.

“It is imperative that collaboration becomes the overarching attitude. Faculties, researchers and students alike have realised the need to share results as quickly as possible with other research groups, in order to get feedback and provide input for new research. USP has experienced a new research atmosphere where most of the competitive spirit is turning in collaborative effort.”

However, support for science is not uniform across the world. In some places, including Brazil, many policy-makers see science as politically troublesome. Also: “From a narrow-minded point of view, policy-makers and even some research agencies may have a tendency to support only applied research, with its perceived clear link to improvements to day-to-day life.”

The over-simplified distinction between ‘science for a purpose’ and ‘science for discovery’ may be actively harming science. The pandemic provided examples of how closely related applied and fundamental research can be.

A major achievement during COVID-19 had been shedding light on the role of universities within society. This included research to mitigate the crippling effects of COVID-19 worldwide. The multiple contributions of academic institutions have been highlighted – including education, research, innovation and engagement with government and society.

A view from the South

“We live in a moment of incredible excitement” in terms of scientific achievements around COVID-19, said Dr Zeblon Vilakazi, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa and a globally respected nuclear physicist.

In the past, the development of a vaccine would have taken decades, after millions of people had died. Today, this had been achieved within two years. “It is a triumph of science, something that people of thought – people of science, of rational reason, of data not anecdote – should be proud of.”

The South African context, Vilakazi told the conference, is one of extreme inequalities forged during apartheid. Wits – like USP and UNAM – is a central university drawing from a diversity of students. Some come from nearby Sandton, said to be the richest square mile in Africa, and others come from the sprawling township of Soweto, south of Johannesburg. Others are from under-developed rural areas. “In a way, we are nestled between two worlds.”

So when COVID hit and South Africa entered highly restrictive lockdowns, some students were able to quickly pivot to online learning: “For them, Wi-Fi is taken for granted. They are connected global citizens.” Students from shanty towns and rural areas returned to places with no access to online services or conducive facilities.

“We had to distribute laptops and devices fast and send data. We spoke to tele-companies to have a social contract, and there was a positive response.” Some students gained connectivity but still struggled to study at home, as they share rooms with siblings.

Wits realised that many students needed to be brought back to campus, so that they could access online learning and resources and not be disadvantaged. To do this, the university had to organise a special lockdown dispensation with government.

A Wits survey of student views of online learning found that 60% felt that they were not getting the same standard of education as before. “Online learning is not the panacea. COVID taught us to adapt fast. But we still need places where young people innovate and cooperate and co-create. We still need social spaces where they join political parties and take social justice courses. That cannot easily be done via platforms.”

Vilakazi concluded: “To me, COVID has given an opportunity to harness digital transformation, to put us at the cutting edge of teaching and learning and sustainability. However, we need to think hard, as policy-makers and as administrators of institutions, as to how we can overcome the digital divides within societies and across the world.”

A Chinese perspective

Dr Jiang Hongxin, a professor of literature and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is chair of the council of Hunan Normal University in central China. He focuses on foreign languages and literature, especially British and American.

Drawing on the writings of Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, Jiang said that today might well be described as the best of times, and the worst of times. COVID-19 has dramatically changed everything and everybody.

“There has been a huge negative impact on higher education, on academic conferences and research cooperation and cultural exchange. Students have been deprived of quality time with professors, of campus life and of education and research resources.

“Yet the pandemic will not mark the end of globalisation. The trend that people are more and more connected is inevitable and irresistible. There are more ways of learning than ever before, providing more opportunities for universities to exert influence and offer services to civil society,” Jiang said.

“Globalisation requires innovative talents with global perspectives and competence. And the pandemic highlights the interconnected nature of our planet.” Diversified methods, advanced technologies and collaboration combined with online and offline teaching could help to achieve top quality higher education.

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated inequalities. “We need to reshape international education to provide less developed regions and least advantaged groups with equal and fair opportunities to access high quality education. This mission of higher education has become more pressing than ever before,” Jiang told the conference.

“In the face of contemporary issues, universities around the world should work together to erase fiscal boundaries, political boundaries, technical bottlenecks, public misunderstandings and general awareness to enhance trust, cooperation and mutual benefits.”

He believes university leaders should look beyond the limitations of ideology and social systems. Historical and cultural differences and national perspectives should not hinder cooperation and collaboration.

“The pandemic has exposed appalling problems with public health, climate change and ecological devastation. We need to jointly tackle these issues as our top priorities and launch substantial cooperation such as joint laboratories and major research projects. At this time, we should be more open and united together in dealing with global threats and challenges.”