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Path from the Pandemic: Post-pandemic partnerships


How university links may ultimately benefit from being forced online by Covid-19

The world became a much smaller place for most people during the Covid-19 pandemic, as rectors and research assistants alike adapted to working from home. But perhaps the starkest change has been for those staff previously sent abroad as institutional emissaries.

“I was probably spending 30 to 40 per cent of my working life travelling for meetings; that’s all online now,” says James Smith, professor of African and development studies and vice-principal international at the University of Edinburgh. 

This pause for breath enforced by lockdowns has prompted reflection on whether such frenetic activity is ideal, he says. “That does allow us to take a bit more of a step back and say where should we be in ten years’ time.”

International links

Universities have been international institutions for hundreds of years, but it is only in the past 20 or so that most began to adopt formal strategies to govern and grow their foreign ties. 

A 2013 survey by the European University Association found that just over half of EUA members had a standalone internationalisation strategy, and about a third considered the issue in a wider strategy.

“Nowadays, it would be difficult to find an institution that does not reference internationalisation as one of its goals,” says Michael Gaebel, director of higher education policy at the EUA, adding that digital strategies have recently become more popular.

Prior to the pandemic, few could have guessed how closely intertwined these two areas of working would become.

“All universities worldwide had to switch in zero time” to digital working due to Covid-19, says Serge Fdida, vice-president of international development at Sorbonne University in France.

In the chaotic first months of the pandemic, the process of building outside relationships was largely forgotten as institutions focused on the safety of students and staff. Even for some time afterwards, universities “had basically no bandwidth, no capacity to handle internationalisation”, says Fdida.

New approaches were eventually adopted, however, and among those Research Europe spoke to there was broad agreement that many are here to stay.

“It’s not triggered by technology, it’s really triggered by usage,” says Fdida, explaining that many virtual means of partnering internationally had been available but were generally going unused before the pandemic struck.

While institutions’ decision-making has been forced by circumstance, there seems to be much to celebrate about the new ways of working across borders. 

In with the new

Rachel Sandison, vice-principal for external relations at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, says the Covid-19 pandemic has not dimmed her institution’s international strategy. “If anything, we’re doubling down on our internationalisation ambitions,” she says, referring to both the strengthening of existing partnerships and development of new ones.

Holding meetings virtually means a broader range of people can participate and makes it easier to introduce people to each other. This increases buy-in, meaning agreements can be settled faster, Sandison says.

Virtual working also allows tie-ups that might have been insurmountable in a purely physical world.

Both Sandison and Fdida cited joint workshops with the University of Sydney in Australia as an example of work that has opened to new possibilities since the pandemic. Glasgow’s workshop was on best practices for virtual learning with Sydney and Kazakstan’s Nazarbayev University, which Sandison says would have been “impossible” in person.

Fdida says Sorbonne took an episodic approach to its Sydney workshops instead of the typical all-day format, holding them for an hour every Tuesday morning for a month. “It was really nice,” he says.

Like online dating, virtual workshops allow institutions to test out staff ‘matches’ before committing to in-person interaction—a huge advantage when a potential suitor is based in Australia. “It’s not obvious, even if you prepare well, that actually they will be the best match,” says Fdida.

For Sandison, who is drafting Glasgow’s next internationalisation strategy, data such as joint publications and student exchanges give hints of which links to strengthen and where new ones might be most beneficial. “We’ll look at all that data to try to pinpoint institutions where there seems to be quite a lot of activity already bubbling away,” she says.

Smith, who is also updating an international strategy, says Edinburgh’s approach is qualitative, and looks towards the future utility of links as much as current circumstances—“much less about targets and numbers and much more about the nature of activity”.

Back with the old

While sending staff abroad is still too much of a risk for many institutions, there was no doubt among those Research Europe spoke to that the old ways will return in some form if and when they are needed.

In the same way that political officials meet over many months before their ministers sit down together, universities may limit face-to-face work to vital activities such as overcoming sticking points on agreements, or sealing them with signatures.

Sandison says the signing of an agreement is the right time to meet physically, “both to celebrate that commitment and to understand what the next steps are”.

“There would be a lot of discussion that would happen before that, and which could happen virtually,” she says.

“It’s where you’re talking about ambitions, you’re talking about abstract things—scaling-up impacts—where the face-to-face meeting becomes really important,” says Smith.

He says Edinburgh will have to take a more cautious approach to future partnerships to be able to govern more complex relationships. “We’re looking in ten years’ time at a portfolio of much more devolved, much more joint and dual degrees, delivered in other parts of the world.”

Fdida says the Sorbonne is piloting joint curricula with partner institutions and that international working can be a “playground” to try innovative approaches that can then be introduced at home, like interdisciplinary courses and challenge-based learning.

While it may soon become easier for institutions to go out into the world once again, many of the same trade-offs between the breadth and depth of international connections still hold true. As the epidemiological situation improves, it will be up to each institution to decide which lockdown workarounds become standard practice.

Ever-growing concerns about the climate emergency will also keep a downward pressure on physical travel, even after it becomes safe again. Edinburgh is on track to hit its climate target of net-zero emissions by 2040 for the “first time ever”, says Smith—an achievement many universities might have accomplished and want to continue.

Online meetings will not replace their physical counterparts but will instead supplement them, says Gaebel, adding that the era of flying across Europe for a single two-hour meeting is probably over.

Worth sustaining

Perhaps the question institutions must therefore ask is what kind of partners they want when the next crisis hits.

“What would a partnership need to look like to endure should something similar happen again?” asks Smith.

Whatever institutions’ plans for future links, they will have to factor in broadband connections as much as proximity to airports.

“I expect the rest of 2021 and 2022 will be a kind of learning situation for universities, to discover what this new normal could be, and also to reflect and rethink how that has been done so far,” says Gaebel. 

Close to home

Not all universities have reacted to the pandemic by looking abroad: some have instead refocused their attention closer to home. “We have decided to go back to our roots, to focus more on our region,” says Robert-Jan Smits, president of the executive board of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.  

“We’re an international university… [but] our reason to go back to our roots speaks for itself: 65 years ago we were created at the request of the high-tech industry [here]. Our research is focused on topics that are important for industry in our region,” he says, citing artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and photonics. “There are many opportunities.”

Path from the Pandemic

The Path from the Pandemic initiative from Research Professional News is focusing on six critical areas where momentum is building for long-term change in the wake of the pandemic. These are: financial sustainability; a fairer sector; online opportunities; international partnerships; open research; and trust in science. Through the initiative we hope to help the sector explore a sustainable way forward. Have your say: #PathFromThePandemic on Twitter or email news@researchresearch.com.

This article also appeared in Research Europe