Leading research-focused universities from across the world came together for the Universitas 21 Annual Network Meeting and Presidential Symposium, held from the 26 - 28 April at the University of Queensland at their campuses in Brisbane, Australia.
For some members, it was the first opportunity to meet their network colleagues face-to-face since travel restrictions internationally have been relaxed in the wake of the pandemic. The opportunity to reconnect was highly valuable, and represented a chance for the network to collectively reassess their principles and mission statements for the first time since the network was founded in 1997.
While many of those initial values of internationalisation and collaboration still hold true - and indeed, are more valuable than ever in the face of the very global challenges posed by factors such as climate change - it was a chance to reassess and enhance as the network enjoys its 26th year of operation.
The theme of the Presidential Symposium was 'Partnering for Change : What role do universities have in creating a net zero future?'. The topic of what responsibilities the higher education sector has, how it can make the best contribution, and the most effective ways of connecting with governments, industries, communities and other agents to effect positive change, was debated by a range of international experts.
The transition towards decarbonisation and clean energy adoption is considered to be one of the primary drivers of the economy over the coming years, projected to create millions of new jobs and transforming the competencies and research areas of focus needed.
In her opening welcome, Professor Deborah Terry AO of the University of Queensland stated that climate change is the defining feature of our times, and that universities must become guiding lights in the race to build a roadmap to achieving Net Zero targets.
The audience heard from expert panellists across industry and academia, including Simon Smart, leader of Net Zero Australia, who defined the most important keys to change as transforming export markets and investing in people, land and diverse skills to support ecosystems, agriculture and related sectors.
Tao Ren of the UK-China Low Carbon College at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told the audience of the importance of higher educations' role as a connector - and shared news that they have recently partnered with over 500 companies to deliver low-carbon scholarships and other practical initiatives. Participants from member universities spoke of their focus on embedding students into the heart of research even from an undergraduate level as a way of creating graduates who can press the case for climate change action in many diverse sectors. Demand for these solutions is not just top-down, but is driven by the needs and wants of students and the wider community. The discussion included the showcase of many innovative solutions, resources and programmes that member universities across the network have developed in the service of meeting climate change goals.
Elsewhere across the three day meeting, participants were brought together as Cluster Groups and as Senior Leaders to develop the network's agenda and commitments for the coming year and beyond. Guests were also given a Formal Dinner, where the work of members of the network who have shown outstanding commitment to internationalisation were honoured with the annual U21 Awards and inaugural Leaders of the Future Awards, recognising current students and young alumni successfully leading change.
Many delegates combined their attendance with other meetings with partner universities in-region, and were able to identify areas of common work which have the potential to progress into formal bi-lateral programmes.
The chance to connect in person was a valuable opportunity to those who were able to attend, and the conclusions from the meetings will be used to guide the forward actions of the network.