The post-corona university and beyond: challenges on the horizon

The post-corona university and beyond: challenges on the horizon

In these uncertain times – marked by social isolation, event cancellations and ever-shifting schedules for getting back to ‘normal’ or some new version of it – connecting with our community and fostering innovative approaches to the work we do is more important than ever. For this reason, the EAIE convened its first ever Community Summit on 16 and 17 June, in which we discussed topics ranging from caring for students in the short term to tailoring our institutions to the long-term challenges that await us. 

Universities in the post-corona world

Our gathering began with a plenary speech from Bert van der Zwaan, former Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University and author of Higher education in 2040: a global approach. He encouraged those in attendance to zoom out from the current moment and see the wider challenges contextualising it, highlighting the ‘triple crisis’ world we're living in.

At present, we're all acutely aware of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on internationalisation and higher education more broadly, but we cannot allow it to consume all of our focus and problem-solving energy. There is also, in the estimation of van der Zwaan and many others, almost certainly an economic recession or even depression on the horizon, and even this medium-term concern masks the much larger, more structurally embedded challenge of climate change.

While the challenges facing the higher education are serious and cannot be quickly resolved, there is room for some optimism. Innovative responses can enhance the future of teaching and learning as we rapidly embrace digitalisation in classrooms in Europe and elsewhere. Universities can leverage this moment to clarify their role as key providers of solutions needed by societies to address the crises we face. And a focus on regional and local networks can complement our institutions’ global profiles and engagements.

Serving our communities, telling our stories

In addition to considering macro-level matters, the Summit conversations also drilled down into several specific areas of interest to our professional community. Caring for students in the academic year ahead, both inside and outside the classroom, featured heavily in the sessions in which Claire O’Leary and Robert O’Dowd served as the principal guest speakers.

Amongst the many standout issues raised in the session on ‘Nurturing support and engagement within the student experience’, the need to adopt flexible and tailored approaches to meeting students’ needs in the coming academic year was frequently cited. Meanwhile, the conversations that played out in the session on virtual exchange and online international learning reminded us, amongst other key insights, that keeping good pedagogy at the heart of the our digital teaching and learning efforts, and making sure faculty and students are appropriately credited for their work in these areas, are vital guiding principles.

Toward a more resilient future

In the second day of the Summit, the discussions addressed both concrete challenges of the coming academic year and the big-picture dynamics that will exert pressure on the higher education sector to evolve in the longer term.

For example, nearly 90% of attendants to the session on ‘Crafting optimal solutions for marketing and recruitment in the face of change’ responded that their recruitment efforts were impacted “to a great extent” or “to a moderate extent” by the current public health crisis. This session’s speaker Kimmo Kuortti, Head of Global Education Solutions at Oulu University of Applied Sciences in Finland, highlighted the importance of synergy between the ‘storytelling’ side of recruitment and the ‘numbers’ side, sharing best practices from Finnish universities who are leveraging student surveys and innovative virtual events to recreate the ‘live’ feeling of typical recruitment.

‘Finding balance and resilience on shifting ground’ was the focus of the Summit’s final session, which brought us into conversation with Michael Ignatieff, Rector and President of the Central European University. From his perspective – and in alignment with several of the themes raised by the Summit’s keynote address from the day before – challenges to the higher education sector in Europe and elsewhere are serious and varied. There are financial stressors. Academic mobility and the prospects of deeply networked and integrated ‘European universities’ are stymied by the breakdown of the Schengen zone in the face of the visa “chokepoints” brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the perennial problem of the public image of higher education requires constant care and attention: in the words of our guest, “if the public thinks these [universities] are ivory towers just sitting there watching the rest of society burn, citizens will turn their backs on us.”

Ignatieff noted, “We're in the business of constantly persuading many people who have not had postsecondary education that these institutions are central to the health, decency and economic growth of their societies.” As such, we need to attend carefully to both our institutions’ vital international interests as well as our more local commitments, including "…be[ing] out there helping the food banks, helping the people, doing local research and linking up with cities.” Fostering interdisciplinarity and working to ensure our faculty are as international in profile as our student bodies also matter greatly as we work toward a more resilient and vibrant future.

Connect with your community

The coming months will doubtless be full of surprises and unprecedented challenges that will test the resilience of not only higher education and internationalisation writ large, but also the many individual professionals whose daily efforts keep the world of international higher education running.

EAIE members will be able to view the recordings of the Community Summit in the Member Centre in the coming weeks. The EAIE will continue to provide stimulating webcasts and helpful webinars in the coming months, offering our community regular moments to connect and exchange perspectives and practices. Additionally, we look forward to bringing our global community together in virtual format once again in mid-October!

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