Professor Jenny Dixon - Why University Networks are Flourishing during COVID-19

The question posed in World University Global News (20 February) on whether university consortia and networks can adapt to the “new normal” is one that is uppermost in the minds of those responsible for oversight and management of these alliances. There is no doubt that the experiences of the pandemic have prompted rapid innovations and adaptations in respect of how universities are undertaking international engagement and activities across the globe. This is very much the case for networks such as Universitas 21 (U21), an example quoted by Gerardo Blanco in his article.

It is worth reflecting on the purpose of networks and why universities join them. They provide collaborative strength and advantage, achieving more together than is possible alone in respect to shared goals and interests, opportunities for staff and students in research, student mobility, and engagement through working on global problems. They provide ready access to staff and students in member universities, thus enabling the creation of an international range of research and other initiatives.

Typologies of networks can be debated at length. However, it should be noted that the rough typology proposed by Blanco appears to have been arbitrarily constructed, using mixed criteria that are value-laden, for example suggesting that some networks are like “country clubs”. This is far from the case. In order to remain dynamic and relevant, networks require their members to remain actively engaged with shared projects and challenges. Furthermore, member universities hold the networks to account for delivering a value-added dimension. As these networks have matured, they have focussed on strategies that enhance and add value to the partners own strategies.

An alternative view might propose a simple classification of networks that most can readily associate with. Four key types can be quickly identified: national (such as advocacy to national or federal governments on Higher Education); regional (proposing solutions to research and policy issues in geographic regions); thematic (lobbying on specific issues); and global (identifying global opportunities for research, education and student mobility). A key point, however, is that regardless of where networks might sit in any typology, it is the distinctiveness of networks which is critical for them to survive and flourish.

U21 is long-established with a much broader and dispersed membership base than is suggested in Blanco’s article. Its founding purpose is to increase interaction between leading research-intensive universities through encouraging educational innovation, supporting researcher engagement and enhancing student experience. The success of U21 in the pandemic rests in part on the basis of long-standing relationships between members and the ability to work across many jurisdictions, together with knowledge of what is important to them.

By adapting and offering new tailor-made programmes and virtual international opportunities, the U21 network has been able to reach out effectively to many more staff and students in their partner universities than ever before. For example, since the start of the pandemic, U21 has provided real-time virtual global activities for over 5,000 students in the network, allowing them to come together online and work with their peers across the world. These numbers are significantly higher than any achieved in previous years. Such digital initiatives have also highlighted a new way to provide more equitable access to virtual global exchanges for many students previously poorly represented in programmes such as study abroad. In a post-pandemic world, it is likely that travel will be more expensive, and institutions will require greater justification of international travel expenditure. Therefore, this new capacity of creating virtual, digitally supported global mobility may well continue to provide innovative, equitable solutions for those students and staff previously unable to benefit from international travel.

There is no struggle here as Blanco alludes; the impending demise of university networks is presumptive. On the contrary it is a matter of adapting and rising to the challenge of the times. In the ‘new normal” it will be imperative that universities produce graduates with the capacity to think beyond the local, and to navigate successfully and thrive across physical and cultural boundaries. To achieve this, universities need to work and learn from each other across regions, cultures and traditions in order to mitigate insularity, cooperate on global and regional issues across borders, and enhance shared goals of internationalisation.

This is what networks do.

Professor Jenny Dixon Provost, Universitas 21