Has COVID-19 nullified agreements on global collaboration?

The impact of COVID-19 on the world of higher education is the main core of numerous webinars and research studies worldwide. However, we still have no clear picture of the effect on international collaborations or easy-to-follow guidelines for how institutions can pursue any memoranda of understanding (MOUs) on such collaborations that were signed prior to the pandemic.

A brief overview of MOUs confirms the importance of on-campus collaborations between universities and higher education institutions. They tend to aim:

• To facilitate the exchange of academics, researchers and experts when it comes to conducting research, teaching or the exchange of ideas;

• To provide opportunities for professors and researchers to participate in conferences, symposia and international meetings of the different parties;

• To collaborate in order to hold joint scientific, research and technological exhibitions and conduct joint research projects;

• To provide necessary facilities for academics to take part in exchanges as part of their sabbatical leave;

• To facilitate the hosting of academics and students visiting from the different institutions;

• To facilitate the exchange of students in areas of mutual interest consistent with the rules and regulations of both countries.

Since the emergence of COVID-19 we have witnessed numerous lockdown rules and regulations by different countries and universities have been among the organisations which have had to immediately respond to severe quarantine policies with a significant impact on how they work.

Countries are used to hosting numerous students as well as academic staff on study abroad programmes, short-term visits and sabbatical leave as well as post-docs as a result of mutually signed MOUs.

Lifting of restrictions

It is now two years since international relations offices in universities and higher education institutions across the world have had virtually no guests or delegations from other universities. For this reason, we need to know what will happen with regard to the MOUs signed prior to COVID-19.

Are all signed MOUs out of date and of no further use in terms of international collaborations?

Do universities and higher education institutions have to give priority to online collaborations? If yes, do universities and higher education institutions have a proper plan for online sabbatical leave or post-doc positions? If yes, what will this mean for international visits?

Are universities and higher education institutions obliged to add a few paragraphs or articles to their earlier MOU templates to restrict any visits and international collaborations in line with the advice of the World Health Organization and the COVID-19 policies of corresponding guest or host countries?

MOUs are signed based on mutual agreement by both parties and provide financial support (accommodation, monthly payments, paid annual leave, etc). Without them, academic staff and students will experience financial burdens. Can universities and higher education institutions still provide financial support for these international visits?

What happens now?

We are now witnessing fewer restrictions and lockdowns across most parts of the world as vaccination rates increase, but do universities and higher education institutions have an obligation to add a new paragraph or article to their MOUs to highlight the importance of vaccination cards and PCR tests prior to each visit?

Every university or higher education institution tries to provide the maximum support for their own full-time registered students in terms of accommodation and access to high-quality teaching and research facilities, but what will universities’ and higher education institutions’ policies be when it comes to recruiting more international students and academic staff at a time of increasing global competition?

We have spoken extensively with some members of the international relations offices as well as university authorities within different parts of the world and it seems that we will witness a new trend in the near future when it comes to international collaborations.

That means those previously signed MOUs may no longer be of use for post-pandemic universities and for higher education generally in the coming decade.

Iman Tohidian is a PhD student of higher education administration. Professor Abbas Abbaspour and Dr Ali Khorsandi Taskoh are faculty members at the department of educational administration and planning, faculty of psychology and education, Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran, Iran.