IIE and UC Davis leadership series draws out four key themes for the future of international education
By Jolynn Shoemaker, director of global engagements, and Ally Russell, student assistant, UC Davis Global Affairs
Leadership Perspectives from Around the World Overview
Just as COVID-19 has created a worldwide health crisis, it has also had a reverberating impact on education. According to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at least 60 percent of students around the world have been affected by the pandemic. As COVID-19 has swept through communities and countries across the globe and deepened social, economic, racial and gender inequalities, universities are facing new realities and difficult decisions. The unprecedented circumstances have led universities to carefully weigh priorities, financial needs, health and safety measures, access and opportunity, daily crisis management and longer-term, strategic decision-making.
In spring 2020, the Institute of International Education (IIE) and University of California, Davis began to discuss the uncertainties and momentous challenges this moment in time poses, as well as the potential for creativity and innovation that seemed to be emerging from the crisis. IIE and UC Davis created the Future of International Education: Leadership Perspectives from Around the World as an online series for candid discussion among senior university leaders, to facilitate region-specific and global insights about how the pandemic is reshaping global engagement for higher education.
The series, which was organized on a weekly basis in June-July 2020, addressed a number of key questions about university responsibilities, internationalization and innovation, student global learning approaches, challenges and opportunities, as well as local, regional, and international contributions. The series kicked off with a panel focusing on the global landscape, followed by four region-specific panels on Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania, and Latin America.
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- Universities Have Social Responsibility in an Interconnected World
- Universities Need to Address Inequalities Through Accessible Education
- Universities are Adapting and Innovating During COVID-19
- Internationalization Remains a Core Strategy for Universities
While universities are responding to the immediate crisis, they are also reflecting on core principles and considering alternative approaches to their research, teaching and service missions over the long-term. While universities, countries, and regions have their own contexts that are shaping their strategies and actions, this series made clear that universities share many common challenges and philosophies around mission, social responsibilities, innovation, global engagement and knowledge-sharing to improve the conditions in society. Universities in this series recognized that the current pandemic is an urgent crisis, and they may face others, but they must continue to operate and support access to education. Despite being separated by borders and time zones, panelists—across countries and regions—discussed their efforts to invest in their campus communities and work towards a more equitable, engaged, and prosperous global community in an extraordinarily challenging moment.
Few things highlight how connected people are across the world like a global pandemic. As Patricia L. Campbell, chancellor at University of Rwanda, noted, “Nothing has proved more evidently than the COVID crisis, the interconnectedness of the world and how important it is for us to look at issues together.”
University leaders across the globe are embracing a shared, global responsibility as generators of knowledge, research, and democracy in times of turmoil, isolationist attitudes, and uncertainty. As Harlene Hayne, vice-chancellor at University of Otagoin New Zealand summed up with a Maori proverb: “We’re all in this canoe together.”
Addressing Common Global Challenges and Furthering Social Justice
University leaders are reflecting on their unique role in society and the imperative to develop solutions to the most pressing global problems. The COVID-19 crisis is demonstrating the critical importance of science and technology and the “One Health” approach that frames the goal of optimal health as dependent on the interconnectedness of people, animals, plants, and their lived environments around the globe. Across time zones and continents, panelists highlighted how science and scientific research provide a mutual framework that can connect us all. Louise O. Fresco, president of the Executive Board at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, reinforced that, through science, “We have a common language and a common understanding.” Wageningen’s mission articulates a commitment not only to research, but to helping translate knowledge into practice worldwide.
Leaders who spoke in the series shared a perspective that universities have global responsibilities as part of their missions, emphasizing the critical importance of service. Increasingly, universities are embracing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an agenda that reflects the commitment to address these complex problems. As Serge Fdida, vice-president at Sorbonne Université, said, “We have a global responsibility to focus on Sustainable Development Goals in research and education, educating the workforce, and future citizens.” In addition to the short- and long-term implications of COVID-19, panelists specifically pointed to climate, food security, artificial intelligence, social inclusivity, economic development and other key challenges that benefit from academic inquiry and collaboration.
The speakers in this series also discussed the opportunities to address global challenges at local levels. Partnering with The World Bank Group, University of Rwanda recently established the African Centre of Excellence in Data Science to directly bridge gaps observed in the science field locally. The center aims to better prepare postgraduate students to address development challenges through interdisciplinary courses on statistics, computer science, and mathematics among other relevant subjects. Acting locally while thinking globally encourages individuals and institutions to take into account how grassroots actions in communities can have reverberating effects on larger global challenges.
University leaders also recognized the importance of furthering social rights and justice in all capacities, including intersections with access to healthcare and education. Many existing inequalities have come to the forefront as a result of COVID-19. In Chile, the nation is in the midst of national mobilization calling for increased social and political equality. Ignacio Sánchez Díaz, rector at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, discussed using the current moment to take stock and recognize what universities and communities should be working towards, stating, “It has been an opportunity to reflect on what is the society we have been building in regards to social rights, in regards to health, education, ways of living and more profoundly in regards to what kind of respect we have [for] each other.” In Chile, university leaders organized an initiative, “We have to talk about Chile” as a way to engage the public, academics, and government leaders in a constructive dialogue to discuss the future and direction of the nation.
In Lebanon, according to Fadlo R. Khuri, president at American University of Beirut (AUB), the state is experiencing a perfect storm of political, social, and economic uncertainty. Khuri looked ahead to the role and responsibility of universities in times of compounded crisis: “We have to continue to facilitate equity and access at all levels to be more and more inclusive in a time where...our methods of delivering education and healthcare are being challenged.”
Chancellor Gary S. May at UC Davis addressed the need to factor social determinants of disease and healthcare disparities that intersect with race into broader conversations about health during COVID-19. “We’re seeing African American communities being disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of mortality in the U.S. The pandemic exposes not only the gaps in our care in our society but also embedded social, cultural, and economic inequalities that lead to the higher mortality rates in Black, Latinx, and Asian communities.” According to May, “It is critical our students recognize root causes to make change in their careers and the lives of others. It’s important across all fields.”
Offering an Alternative Narrative to Isolationism and Xenophobia
Throughout the series, there were several discussions about the rising tide of isolationist and xenophobic ideologies across much of the world. Speakers emphasized that universities have a responsibility to combat these views, whether they come from governments or other actors. Universities, through their global engagement, can offer an alternative path of shared prosperity based on inclusion and connection. C. Raj Kumar, vice-chancellor at O.P. Jindal Global University in India, observed that, “This is the time when the natural tendency of governments around the world is to embrace protectionism...even question the very foundations of globalism...It’s important for universities and universities’ faculty to resist that temptation to dismiss and even be skeptical about notions of internationalization.”
One way to model this alternative narrative is by welcoming students, scholars, faculty and staff from around the world to become part of campus communities and by nurturing collaborations among people from different backgrounds. Wageningen University & Research developed a philanthropic fund to help support global exchange, providing financial assistance for students from developing countries to study at the university. Today, students from 110 nationalities make up Wageningen’s diverse campus community. Many university leaders reinforced their continued commitment to serving their international student populations, as many of these students have been forced to relocate back home as a result of COVID-19. AUB has made efforts to bring students into the university who have been displaced by conflicts in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and other places. Khuri stressed the importance of inclusivity: “It’s important to stick to that global point of view that we can work together to become not only generators of knowledge but work together to overcome the fear of the ‘Other’ which is becoming again so prevalent.”
Universities can also challenge political division between countries through joint international research efforts. Despite the current U.S. political rhetoric towards Mexico, universities have been actively working to expand collaboration efforts across the border. According to David Garza, president at Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico,“We have seen an increase in terms of universities from the U.S. trying to work more with us and other universities from Mexico and around the world to promote internationalization.
"For me, that is the key aspect... There is no wall that can stop the universities from collaborating. We will always find a way.”
Developing Global Citizens
Speakers in this series emphasized that international education is critical for students to develop the skills and knowledge that equip them to contribute to a globally-engaged society. Universities have a responsibility to develop broader knowledge and understanding alongside technical skills.
Campbell, stated, “We are not turning into vocational schools, but rather we’re forming global citizens who are prepared for their careers.” For Patrick Awuah Jr., president at Ashesi University, the high unemployment rate for youth in Africa (29-30 percent) has created an urgent need for occupational and entrepreneurial training. In addition, Awuah highlighted a need to build a society grounded in justice and inclusion. African universities have a key role to play in creating a positive narrative for the future of Africa and students are a core part of this.
In an age of information and increasingly-common polarized rhetoric, universities have a responsibility to equip students with the skills to critically recognize and counter misinformation. Students need to understand how to critically listen, read, formulate ideas and engage in dialogue. Some speakers pointed out that as students become more adept at navigating the digital space and absorbing information rapidly, there is also a danger that they could lack the ability to critically analyze the information or examine different sides of the argument. Panelists agreed that universities need to provide the space and capacity-building for these leadership skills.
The global pandemic has made it clear to students that there is no certainty when it comes to the future. Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, suggested that perhaps “uncertainty” should be part of the college curriculum as it becomes more important than ever for young people to learn how to analyze and react to evolving and unpredictable situations.
As COVID-19 swept across the world, universities needed to transition student populations to online platforms immediately, which brought access and equity challenges to the forefront. The pandemic further exposed a widening global digital divide between developed and developing countries and between students in different socio-economic situations.
For students returning home to areas without reliable access to internet, data, or digital devices, continuing their education became increasingly inaccessible. To address this, universities needed to act quickly. Stellenbosch University negotiated data bundles to ensure students had reliable access to the internet wherever they were located. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid successfully transitioned to online learning within days of the nation’s lockdown going into effect. According to Matilde Sánchez Fernández, vice-rector at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, a large part of the university’s success was due to the rapid development of a university computer loan program. Other university leaders echoed Sánchez Fernández, pointing to other initiatives designed to bridge the digital divide. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile equipped 2,000 students with digital devices in a matter of weeks. UC Davis also instituted a laptop loaner program. University of Otago in New Zealand provided more than one million dollars of digital materials to students with the aid of philanthropic donations and has provided $2.7 million of direct financial aid to students in need. The Universidade Federal de São Paulo in Brazil worked with donation programs to provide access to approximately 15% of students who did not have access to digital devices or the internet.
Conversations about the digital divide have also encouraged universities to carefully consider other ways students have been financially affected by the ongoing pandemic. For Awuah, the pandemic has highlighted the essential role of technology for students, stating, “Today we have the model that ensures our students have access to all the textbooks they need and technology is becoming as fundamental as that.” Ashesi University provided students with financial aid and stipends to help ensure access to basic needs while at home, beyond access to technology. Other university leaders highlighted the need to extend financial aid to ensure students continued to have access to food, shelter, and other basic needs. In addition to the pandemic having immediate effects on students’ access to technology, COVID-19 has also had ripple effects impacting many students’ financial realities.
For many students returning home during the pandemic, access to reliable technology and the internet diminished significantly. In response, Tecnológico de Monterrey implemented an equipment loan program for students and an emergency fund to address changes in students’ financial need as a result of COVID-19. The University of Rwanda carried out a comprehensive and innovative digital outreach effort, organizing a donation program to ensure each student had cell phone access. Campbell described, “While internet access wasn’t ubiquitously available, cell phone coverage was and with a smart phone our students could keep up with their classwork.” With cell phone access students had the ability to learn over 3G/4G regardless of internet access.
With the new academic year, universities have a responsibility to ensure new students are not left behind or at a disadvantage. Many speakers from the panel credited the successful transition to online learning and performance in spring to students’ already-established relationships with university faculty and staff. For the fall, first-year students entering university will not have this benefit and will require additional support. With many universities moving forward with partial re-openings, speakers discussed the importance of prioritizing incoming students, among other groups, for in-person courses. Other university panelists addressed the reduced student retention rate associated with online learning (10-20 percent lower) as a critical challenge to meet moving forward, especially focusing resources on first-generation students and students from less advantaged backgrounds.
For many, COVID-19 has exposed the existing inaccessibility of higher education and inequalities; university leaders across the globe are working to change that. Going forward, many university leaders are looking to expand international opportunities for students, a demand that has not diminished in face of the ongoing pandemic. According to May, “there is a critical need for flexible global learning opportunities and programs that support diverse communities. They must be accessible and inclusive as well.”
Leaders recognize that online learning platforms do not exist without serious barriers to overcome. University leaders are focusing on the importance of taking care of all members of their campus communities. Fdida reflected on this: “We have to take good care of our community. We have to ensure the students and staff are safe and well.” While widespread access to digital technology served as an invaluable tool to aid universities’ rapid transition to online learning, many university leaders expressed concerns regarding the sustained costs associated with providing these materials.
In tandem with unprecedented challenges and roadblocks, the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented universities with an unparalleled opportunity to innovate and reimagine what the future of higher education can look like. University leaders who spoke in this series highlighted entrepreneurship, collaboration, and creativity as essential to weathering this crisis and emerging from it as stronger institutions.
Rather than working to return to a pre-COVID-19 era, Peter Mathieson, principal and vice-chancellor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, focused on the university’s mission to push forward. “In our response to coronavirus, we’re not talking about recovery here because we think recovery implies you’ll go back to the previous situation...we’re talking about adaptation, adapting to a new set of circumstances. And I think the universities that do well through this process will be the ones who adapt most successfully.”
Speakers emphasized the important role of faculty, staff and students in coming together to develop new approaches to unexpected roadblocks posed by COVID-19. Fresco reflected on the experience: “The most striking part of this whole crisis for me has been the incredible versatility and creativity of our staff. It’s really amazing how much the crisis actually brings out the best in people.” Going beyond simply transitioning classes online, Wageningen University & Research developed flagship 3-D laboratory classes, enabling students to better engage in participatory lab work while learning remotely. At University of Otago in New Zealand, researchers and students embraced the spirit of innovation and created a new brand of hand sanitizer after recognizing national supply shortages.
According to Hayne, “We’ve learned that we are actually bolder and braver than we ever imagined. We have really stepped outside the ivory tower, rolled up our sleeves, and helped save a nation from the devastation of COVID-19.”
For many university leaders who spoke in this series, the crisis has spurred new thinking about how to design and structure higher education. Kumar posed the question: “Can we re-imagine international education – create new innovation?” He urged university leaders to challenge themselves and to have conversations about the future of higher education that include reimagining the costs of education, democratizing higher education, and creating an inclusive educational framework that incorporates access to technology. In India, where there are significant material inequalities, this will require national investment in higher education. Freedom, innovation, flexibility and adaptability are core principles.
Providing Critical Research to Inform Public Policy
University leaders from every region highlighted the critical knowledge that universities can provide to policymakers, especially at a time when there are fundamental questions about how to respond to unprecedented challenges.
For Sari Lindblom, rector at the University of Helsinki in Finland, “Universities have the responsibility to support society during global crises in particular by providing decision makers, analysis, and even empirical evidence of the situation, and of possible situations.” University leaders spoke of the far-reaching value of universities during COVID-19, including, but not limited to, the current focus on diagnostics, vaccines and contact tracing. Fresco said that the pandemic has highlighted the value and importance of universities as generators of knowledge and expertise. “I’m firmly convinced that universities are more important than ever before,” Fresco said. “For the first time governments are really trying...to make decisions based on scientific evidence.” COVID-19 could be a watershed moment in recognizing the importance of public health. Fdida stressed, “we will also have to contribute to restore the public’s trust in science.”
In New Zealand, University of Otago scientists have been essential voices in the government’s comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic, working alongside policymakers to provide evidence-based recommendations. “Since the beginning of this year experts across the university have provided advice to the government on things like diagnosis, containment, and contact tracing of COVID-19,” said Hayne.
In Brazil, Universidade Federal de São Paulo has 150 current research initiatives focused on COVID-19, exploring different aspects of the disease and potential treatment. According to Soraya Soubhi Smaili, rector at Universidade Federal de São Paulo, the university’s ability to effectively concentrate research efforts depended on already established laboratories, secured funding, government support, and public reception.
University leaders who spoke in this series considered international engagement, especially in the face of COVID-19, both a necessity and a central philosophy of higher education institutions. Despite the challenges that it presents, COVID-19 has reaffirmed the importance of global relationships and interactions for university missions.
Mathieson stated it simply when asked how COVID-19 has impacted the university’s international strategy: “In terms of ethos and philosophy, not one iota.” While universities remain committed to internationalization, Kumar recognized that the current crisis has challenged leaders to rework strategies to facilitate international connection.
According to Kumar, “COVID-19 has not in any way shaken our commitment towards promoting internationalization but clearly it has also pushed us to be more innovative in relation to internationalization.”
According to Fdida, “We have always considered internationalization as a playground to experiment with global research challenges and research pedagogies.” While all speakers remained committed to internationalization as a core tenet of higher education, COVID-19 has forced universities to reimagine what internationalization looks like during periods of global crisis and restricted mobility.
University leaders and researchers remain focused on how they can continue to nurture international collaboration and partnerships for the future, without the opportunity to travel at this time. In tandem with developing new forms of collaboration, Sánchez Fernández reinforced Carlos III’s commitment to also planning ahead for a time when international travel is again a possibility. “Even though it might seem very difficult at this moment to develop or to encourage any mobility programs...as long as we can we are going to work toward that.”
Strengthening Strategic Partnerships During Crisis
Universities are reexamining their international partnership priorities and needs in the midst of COVID-19, recognizing the process of building relationships and joint efforts needs to be approached differently without in-person interaction. As the established ways of building relationships with partner institutions such as delegations, in-person workshops, and conferences have not been possible, many universities are making judicious decisions about future partnership efforts.
Fresco described the approach at Wageningen University & Research as based on common language and bottom-up interest, which provides a strong foundation for partnerships and blended education. “Partnerships are like a marriage. You’re in it for the long haul, for the good and the bad.”
These are important considerations for not only bilateral partnerships, but also for networks of global partners that are emerging. Bringing together university strengths and joint work to address global problems, university coalitions like the A5 network are combining forces to address worldwide hunger.
Khuri explained that American University of Beirut looks for three elements in forming strategic partnerships: 1) A partnership must be a two-way street; 2) Both partners must have common goals, interests and ethos; and 3) The partnership must be able to provide meaningful, additive, or synergistic experiences that are different than what can be done by any one campus alone. For all potential partnerships, AUB also assesses the value the partnership could bring and how the entire campus could be included.
Although internationalization is often associated with study abroad and student exchange programs, speakers underscored that internationalization is a much broader concept. Comprehensive internationalization strategies provide development opportunities to both faculty and students. Campbell reinforced the importance of promoting opportunities for current and future faculty in Africa to further develop their skills and expertise, including access to Ph.D. programs as part of University of Rwanda’s internationalization strategy. In addition to advancing faculty development, internationalization opportunities also allow faculty to cultivate professional networks across institutions. Awuah highlighted the need for universities in Africa to develop more South-South collaborations, saying, “African institutions should be connecting with each other more easily online and we see that it is possible so I hope that we can drive that as well in the future.”
Accelerating Virtual Internationalization
Universities across the world are embracing an accelerated, virtual model of international collaboration that many believe is here to stay. Even for universities planning to reopen in the fall, most will opt for a hybrid learning model with both in-person and virtual classes.
Mathieson considers the online programs integral to keeping international engagement active. “One silver lining I think from the pandemic is now we’ve all become very familiar with online technologies that perhaps we were a little suspicious of before...it's been demonstrated to us that these online methods of communication can work perfectly well even across time zones. We need to harness some of that, I think we need to think about ways we can continue our international activity in a time of travel restrictions.”
Wim de Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor at Stellenbosch University, lauded internationalization at home as a key strategy to engage students without access to international mobility. “We must also not forget that these online programs and joint programs are an opportunity for internationalization at home that we could be strengthening because not all students can make use of international mobility.”
At Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, the Global Classroom Project and Virtual Student Exchange Programs are already connecting students to a global, virtual network of peers and educators. In the past year, over 1,000 students participated in courses designed in collaboration with local and international faculty. By merging common subjects and curriculums, students in Mexico and abroad had the opportunity to participate in a virtual, global classroom experience. Tecnológico de Monterrey’s global classroom is already serving as a model for other institutions looking to further virtual internationalization. UC Davis, partnering with Tecnológico de Monterrey and Shanghai Jiao University, is currently creating a framework for teaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of a project for the Universitas 21 network, using this global classroom model. The courses will bring together expertise, best practices, and experiences across the three universities, while furthering international, virtual collaboration.
COIL (Collaborative Online International Learning) is one method that engages faculty and students from across the world by connecting classes at different universities with information communication technologies. At Kansai University in Japan, COIL not only allows for international collaboration between students and faculty, but exposes both parties to different perspectives on subjects and pedagogies. As Yutaka Maeda, vice president of Kansai University, stated, “Even in this situation of COVID-19, education must emphasize that we are united, we are connected to each other.”
While in the past international faculty traveled to different countries to teach and conduct research, online portals have introduced a new strategy to foster future connectivity. Future collaboration between institutions, researchers, and university leaders conducted virtually will serve to supplement in-person strategies of connection. De Villiers discussed the possibility of developing joint online programs, joint Ph.D., and master’s programs as additional tools to help facilitate inter-institutional collaboration and internationalization at home.
While many of these models were developed to adapt to university closures and stay-at-home orders, university leaders foresee these programs fitting into a new education model following COVID-19. To help usher new digital resources into university learning portfolios, de Villiers said that Stellenbosch University is currently building the digital infrastructure necessary to support these approaches, to develop innovative pedagogy and practice around blended mobility, and to design courses that integrate the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
At UC Davis, May described flexible and accessible global learning opportunities already being developed as a part of the campus Global Education for All initiative, which aims to provide 100% of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students with global learning experiences—on campus, in the region, or around the world.
“We’re able to leverage classroom learning and online international collaborations to prepare our students for global challenges and opportunities in very cost-effective ways,” he said.
Leadership Perspectives In Review
In the face of unprecedented challenges as a result of COVID-19, university leaders in the five panels of this series demonstrated a continued commitment to weathering the current storm that for many reaffirmed universities’ mission to promote and embrace internationalization. Even during the current moment of worldwide crisis and uncertainty, universities are paving new ways forward, reflecting on the responsibilities and direction they provide for local and global communities alike in addressing global challenges and preparing the next generation of leaders. They are investing in creative new ways to maintain operationsand to support access to education, in waysthat are tailored to specific regional contexts, histories, and community needs.
Universities will surely emerge from this global pandemic as changed institutions. This series highlighted that the core principles of internationalization and inclusion will be at the forefront of this transformation. Alongside adversity and challenges presented by COVID-19, university leaders and communities are learning valuable lessons about inclusion and raising important questions about the potential future of international and higher education. For many, current uncertainty presents an opportunity for innovation and meaningful reflection. With uncertainty, increased need, and many challenges that remain ahead, universities as an interconnected, global network are poised to bring needed vision, leadership, scientific advancements, and increased equity to the near future of higher education. While COVID-19 may be unprecedented, the situation has also demonstrated that the global community is indeed interconnected and resilient in the face of crisis, and that universities contribute to society in unique and needed ways, to develop solutions and prepare future generations for the challenges that lie ahead.
About UC Davis
UC Davis is one of the top-ranked universities in the world, and its experts are helping address the pandemic and other global challenges. Through Global Education for All, the campus is implementing an ambitious plan to provide all students with international or intercultural experiences — whether on campus or one of the seven continents. Recently, UC Davis shared the top ranking among U.S. universities for diversity and internationalization, and the university was named a recipient of the 2020 Simon Award for Comprehensive Internationalization.
About the IIE
The Institute of International Education administers the world’s most prestigious and innovative programs in international education and exchange, including the Fulbright Programs of the U.S. Department of State, The Language Flagship of the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Ford International Fellowships Program. Founded in 1919, IIE promotes the exchange of scholars and students; rescues scholars, students, and artists from persecution, displacement, and crises; conducts research on international academic mobility; and administers more than 200 corporate, government and privately-sponsored programs.
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- Find more information on the speakers and view the panels discussions on Future of International Education: Leadership Perspectives from Around the World webpage