THE PANDEMIC has disrupted higher education international activities and the financial models on which universities increasingly depend. But the previous model was already problematic, contributing to global warming and benefitting rich universities more than poor. The University of Cape Town (UCT) is hosting a series of virtual events that will seize the moment to rethink global collaborations for a sustainable and equitable planet.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought vividly to the fore both the perils of globalised higher education and the critical need for universities to work together across borders to solve threats to humanity such as this.
The current model of the globalisation of higher education, which requires executives, academics and students to travel in large numbers, has already posed a serious challenge to sustainability and exacerbates inequalities in higher education given the costs involved – particularly for universities in developing countries.
The coronavirus pandemic is posing an urgent further challenge to that model, and UCT believes that this disruption to our global patterns of behaviour should be seized as an opportunity for reinvention.
What can we do differently, and what can we not afford to lose?
“If we don’t step into our discomfort zone, we’ll stay in the same place while the world changes around us.”
Unleashing the new global university is a series of virtual events in which UCT invites innovative, international and local speakers to have challenging conversations that help us reimagine the internationalisation of higher education.
Rethinking a model on which so many universities depend will not be easy, says UCT Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who initiated and will host the series of events.
“If we don’t step into our discomfort zone,” says Phakeng, “we’ll stay in the same place while the world changes around us. We need to disrupt ourselves so that we can lead the way, rather than follow wherever the change takes us.”
The first event, on 29 June, will focus on the future of conferences and international meetings. Most of us will by now have attended virtual versions of large international gatherings that were intended to be physical get-togethers.
Should we consider this to be the future of conferences? What are the gains and losses of online conferences, workshops and consortium meetings? How can conferences be reinvented?
Dr Katye Altieri, lecturer in oceanography at UCT and one of the Vice-Chancellor’s 2030 Future Leaders, recently attended an extremely large virtual conference and says it was a great experience.
“Having attended the online European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2020, with 26 000 earth scientists from 134 countries, it is easy to imagine continuing online conferences beyond COVID-19,” she explains.
“I was planning to travel to Vienna for the conference, but no-one else from my research group was attending, as it’s too costly. All of my postgraduate students attended the virtual conference for at least one session, and many for the whole week, and they really benefitted from the online session interactions.”
Apart from the expense and the travel time involved, traditional, physical conferences are not always scintillating experiences.
Esther Ngumbi, assistant professor of entomology and African American studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is one academic who has argued for a complete rethink.
“Every month, scientists gather at conferences around the world,” she wrote in Wired in March this year, in an article entitled ‘Science conferences are stuck in the Dark Ages’.
“Their topics range…, but they are equally dull, dated and drill like,” she says.
These conferences are critical for academic success, but for decades, she argues, “the room has been the same: four walls, a podium and a projector.”
Ngumbi is one of the speakers of the first UCT event, each of them engaging with a counterpart in a conversation that is primed to push boundaries and look for innovative solutions.
The other participants are Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer of Times Higher Education, Isabel Casimiro, president of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), and Katye Altieri, lecturer in oceanography at UCT.
“The open flow of ideas and talent across borders is the lifeblood of great scholarship and will be the key to addressing some of the world’s shared grand challenges, such as the current pandemic, and looming disasters, such as global heating,” says Baty.
“But the long-standing and deep-seated inequalities in global scholarship, between the elite and usually rich universities of the global north and those in the global south, are often exacerbated by restrictions of movement, driven by deliberately hostile visa and immigration regimes.
“The rise of the virtual conference should help smash structural inequalities in global scholarship.”
“I really hope that improvements to remote-access, digital events can help break down these inequalities and help support a new era of equal partnership and exchange, and help show the world the extraordinary power of universities when their academics share and collaborate.”
Conversation 2: African-led collaborations
The second event, on 13 July, will focus on whether or not the disruption to the current higher education model can bring about a shift in the centre of gravity in international collaborations and help us to reimagine a different approach that empowers African institutions to take the lead in collaborative projects and partnerships both within and outside the continent.
Future topics include undergraduate mobility and postgraduate international experiences.