Our future depends on the sharing of intellectual resources

The pandemic showed the downsides of an interconnected world with the rapid spread of the virus. However, to address the global challenges of our time, higher education needs to strengthen global discourse and international collaboration, delegates to the first general conference of the International Association of Universities (IAU) for six years were told.

Addressing higher education leaders from the four corners of the globe who were meeting together in Dublin, Ireland, Patrick Deane, principal of Queen’s University, Canada and president of the governing council of the Magna Charta Observatory, said there were still some who need convincing that international cooperation must triumph over self-reliance if the world is to learn the lessons of a pandemic that could have extinguished the population.

The conference, hosted by University College Dublin (UCD), was delayed for two years because of the pandemic and had the overarching theme of ‘Relevance and value of universities to future society’.

Absence of the United States

University leaders from over 80 countries registered for the event for which University World News was the media partner, but some were not able to attend and Deane was one of several speakers who mentioned the absence of representatives from the United States.

Deane told the final conference session on the future of higher education in an interconnected and global context that “a remarkably small number of (North) American universities are members of the International Association of Universities, when you consider the number of outstanding higher education institutions that exist in that part of the world”.

While some might say ‘So what?’ and the association should be a ‘partnership of the willing’, Deane said the future of the planet and humankind depended on “comprehensive collaborative action and the equitable sharing of resources, both intellectual and material”.

That meant “the interconnectedness of the greatest minds and the greatest of institutions”, including those in the United States.

The theme was taken up by the new president of the IAU, Andrew Deeks, president and vice-chancellor of Murdoch University, Australia, whose election address was pitched at turning the IAU’s strapline of being ‘the global voice of higher education’ into reality.

Talking to University World News after taking over the reins from Pam Fredman, former rector of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, Deeks said: “The strength of the membership and board structure of the IAU is the inclusion of voices from all parts of the world, spanning the Global North, South, East and West” and that while there were other university associations, “none has the breadth of membership” of the IAU.

“However, there are some areas of the world which are under-represented in relation to the size of their higher education sector, most notably the United States, which has great strength and depth in higher education and research internally – but only plays a minor role in collaborative international organisations such as the IAU.”

Deeks said he would also be working for greater British involvement, which was underrepresented at the conference considering Dublin is less than an hour’s flight away from most UK cities.

“Increased engagement with China, as the second research powerhouse after the US, is also a priority,” Deeks told University World News.

Independent global voice

Deeks said: “Governments around the world are increasingly wanting to control and specify the role of universities, and so having a global voice which is independent of national or regional interests is becoming even more important.

“I’m keen to advocate and educate stakeholders about the value and relevance of universities as communities for learning, scholarship, research and societal benefit, countering a view of universities as corporations with customers, or as factories to turn out job-ready graduates in areas prescribed by governments.

“We do not sell products, and our students are not customers. We recruit students to become lifelong members of our communities of scholarship, and we offer them journeys of learning and discovery which prepare them for life in an uncertain and changing world.”

He said that as the new IAU president, he intends to “increase engagement from institutions in all underrepresented regions” to address global challenges and contribute to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The conference session on the future of higher education in an interconnected and global context also heard from Nana Amfo, vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana, who said universities needed to identify their own strengths and be willing to “give and take” in partnerships and “remember that every member of the club has something to give”.

High expectations of higher education

She also reminded delegates that people have “higher expectations of higher education” and it “amazes them when they discover that things like corruption can exist in some universities and are surprised when we reflect society.”

Fadlo R Khuri, president of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, told the conference he believed it was “critical to have a campus” even in today’s digitally interconnected world, and that despite having his own campus partially destroyed during the 2020 blast in the port of Beirut, considered to be one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions recorded, it was important to have a physical place where a diverse student population could mix and study together.

“It is no good going to university just with people similar to you,” he said, adding that 64% of his university’s students received financial aid and that half of the students come from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The conference ended as it began – with the emphasis on building higher education through international collaboration and overcoming obstacles, whether natural or man-made.

In the opening session, Kiyoshi Yamada, chancellor of Tokai University, Japan, told the audience how his university rose from the ashes at the end of the Second World War with the mission “to build a peaceful nation and contribute to world peace” and now has five campuses, including the Tokai University Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, which has helped to shape its approach of thinking ahead to act for humanity.

In the same first session focusing on the transformative power of higher education, Sebastian Berger, executive director of the Global Student Forum, spoke about universities being “a key enabler for the transition to a more sustainable world”.

Berger urged higher education leaders to “practise what they preach” and pointed out that “only 3% of the world’s universities have pledged to net-zero emission targets through the race to net-zero campaign” and that higher education “remains a privilege that a large majority of people still do not have access to”.

There is plenty, then, for IAU members to focus on as the international association sets course under its new president with four strategic priorities for the years ahead:

• Globally engaged and value-based leadership
• Internationalisation for society and the global common good
• Higher education and research for sustainable development
• Digital transformation of higher education.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at