Celebrating 25 Years of U21

As Universitas 21 Presidents prepare for their first face-to-face Annual General Meeting in three years, they are confronting the most complex environment higher education has encountered in generations. There is the global context in which this gathering takes place and the impact this is having on the very nature of the meeting itself.  Yet at the same time, the Presidents and Senior Leaders will also be reflecting on the U21 network itself which, in 2022, celebrates 25 years of what began as a collective global ambition for their students, researchers and staff. 

So yes! When we meet in Birmingham in early May there is a lot to discuss. 

Our discussions will be shaped by our current environment.  We are a global organisation of 28 research-intensive universities.  Of those, 24 will be represented in person in Birmingham with some joining our meetings via Zoom.  This virtual presence showcases how comfortable we have become meeting online thanks to the pandemic.  It also reflects climate change and sustainability considerations and an eye on budgets, which many expect in a post-pandemic environment to be subjected to restraint. That said, there is considerable anticipation building of coming together next week after several years of virtual meetings.  

We will come together face-to-face and virtually, at a time of global instability.  The Covid-19 pandemic is still disrupting the world, particularly in Asia where our members continue to face lockdowns. The invasion of Ukraine has seen five  million refugees flee across Europe and beyond.  Both have and will continue to reshape geopolitics and impact on local economies and higher education. 

I am proud of U21’s response to the pandemic.  By taking our student courses online we lifted participant numbers 16-fold and in doing so made global student engagement more accessible, diverse, and equitable.  By taking our researcher and staff engagement online, many members found they could lift the numbers of their people taking part in U21 activities. 

Yet at the same time, many of our members arrive in 2022 after two tumultuous years during which they have had to focus almost exclusively on just doing the basics. It is a common Covid-19 experience at an individual and institutional level. While our members are in varying stages of emerging from the pandemic, our collective challenge needs to be focused on how to maximise our globally connected strengths and understand how to respond to the post-pandemic world.  We will do this while at the same time determining the best engagement approaches for us to use to ensure we remain deeply connected. 

Two people discussing writing on a whiteboard

With this post-pandemic world in mind, the 2022 U21 Presidential Symposium will focus on youth leadership. Our network will consider how best to support students to become next-generation leaders. Their university experience has been tremendously impacted through the pandemic years.  We will hear diverse case studies of creative and resilient student leadership from UC Chile, Universities of Hong Kong Edinburgh and Johannesburg.  

When 11 like-minded, research-intensive universities gathered in Melbourne in 1997 they shared a global ambition to create a leading international network to enable research excellence, collaboration across cultures, and engage staff and students in mobility opportunities. In forming Universitas 21, their vision for global engagement and partnerships through education pre-dated the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000) and the Sustainable Development Goals (2015). In the 25 years since that first meeting, our founding members can be justifiably proud of the organisation that has evolved. 

This year with the University of Sydney joining U21, our membership now stands at 28 leading universities from 18 nations, spanning six continents.  Our U21 community takes in more than a million students and over 200,000 staff. We are forging relationships and connections across the globe as we take forward the vision for U21 set in place a quarter of a century ago. Our founding members have realised their ambition – their global project has now been firmly established on the world stage delivering an evolving menu of programmes that impact on the lives of students, researchers, and staff across the globe. 

We are a global network committed to global connectedness through education and research.  For 25 years we have pursued this, deepening relationships, learning from each other, believing in the value of shared knowledge and experience and supporting students, researchers and staff to be globally engaged and empowered.  As the world faces current challenges, our network’s commitment to our founding principles is unwavering. 

Jenny Dixon 

Provost, U21

Jenny Dixon