Until now, we were accustomed to living in a period when technological discoveries and political and economic systems have enriched and empowered while simultaneously constraining our ability to respond to human needs, to inequality and to climate change.
COVID-19 has suddenly thrust this contradiction to the top of the higher education agenda so that it cannot be ignored.
University presidents face it in immediate ways. During this crisis, how do universities care for the health and well-being of faculty and students? Faced with steep budget shortfalls, what can we do to advance equity and access? Teaching online for long periods, how can we maintain engagement and quality? How do we prepare for the second and third waves of infection? How do we support urgently needed biomedical research without falling prey to commercial and political interests?
Longer term, what will the new normal be? In a changed world, what will the role of universities be?
The pause now forced upon the world has brought hardship, sorrow, sickness and death to millions. Although we did not cause it, the crisis has thrust an accounting upon universities similar to the threat the Global Financial Crisis posed to financial institutions.
What are our options?
We can learn from it and take the opportunity to act according to our values, long-term goals and responsibility to society. In my experience, most university presidents are well aware of the shortcomings of higher education systems and work for change in their own institutions. The current crisis has opened the possibility of realising these changes more quickly and in concert with others, a chance to re-evaluate and seize the moment, to act out our true values in the midst of uncertainty.
Or, like the financial world after 2009, we can attempt to paper over the cracks in an attempt to forestall change. We can try to convince ourselves that we can return to pre-COVID settings.
However, this second choice does not exist. The global health emergency has accelerated three trends which were already observable before the crisis and to which universities are now compelled to respond in the glare of the public spotlight.
First, governments and public institutions need to move more decisively towards the public interest rather than leaving society at the mercy of a globalised market.
Second, a new multilateralism is required to preserve international cooperation in the face of the resurgence of nationalism in virulent forms and to take account of geopolitical shifts of power and influence.
Third, we need to find new ways to support vulnerable societies and vulnerable groups within societies in order to secure the future of all societies and of the ecosphere.
What does this mean for universities?
To address the public interest, we need to emphasise higher education as a public good which aids social mobility and inclusion, seeks to align teaching and research with global challenges and honours public service and social commitment. The kind of social mobility we esteem must aim to diminish inequality at all levels, not dangle a degree as a way to scramble over others to join a self-regarding elite.
This means building better pathways for creative, critical minds from all backgrounds to join leading research universities, reaching beyond the well-cooked, absorb-rewind-repeat, programmed undergraduate. It means faculty and institutions with more autonomy. It means more public funding, acknowledging that societies cannot prosper or adapt to this new world without providing access for all to higher education and freeing students and their families from enslavement to banks.
For a long time, universities have tried to break the connection between intellectual excellence and social elitism. Now, we must combine this with a collective effort to relate higher education to the survival of our species, surely the outstanding public interest and highest global common good. In short, this crisis is the opportunity for a significant point of departure.
The new multilateralism is already late in arriving. The location of global institutions in the trans-Atlantic world has long implanted the assumption that London, New York, Paris and Geneva are global cities where ‘international’ decisions are made and the rest of the world is regional and therefore peripheral.
The same is true for universities. Exacerbated by Anglo-Saxon rankings and the dominance of English, the world of higher education aims not only for research excellence but conformity to a single organisational model, requiring high levels of funding difficult even for first world countries to achieve. The richness of different models with local character suited to their context is ignored.
The assumptions of the old multilateralism, nostalgic though we are in the time of Trump for more reasoned policy engagement, were already weak and contested because they no longer reflected global realities. The emergence of the Asia-Pacific economically and politically, along with the rise of China as a great power, means multilateralism must be multi-nodal for governments and for universities.
Emphasising our common humanity
The risk now is that this will be shaped by the throwback polemics of cultural essentialism, the idea that the most essential thing about people is their culture and their perceived differences rather than their common humanity. We must not descend yet again into the East-West dichotomous diversion, a zero-sum game between the fabrications of Asian values and American exceptionalism leveraged by political administrations seeking to shore up support.
Here universities can have a decisive influence. We know the value of building networks and partnerships across borders of all kinds, of exchanges, internships and research collaborations.
We now have to figure out how to amplify this connectivity virtually and to get over the ideological barriers which prevent the free flow of ideas and the contestation which is the lifeblood of academic enquiry. We cannot advance on the conceptual basis that the differences between us are immutable. From myriad experiences with each other, we know they are not.
We have to create neutral international platforms where partner universities are respected as equals and partnerships targeted at local needs draw on global solutions. This way we can ensure local knowledge informs international research and that its benefits flow to where burdens are greatest. In this way we can address the third imperative of supporting the vulnerable.
If this historical moment is to be emancipatory rather than only constraining, universities need to act on knowledge they have had for many years:
• The global centre of gravity has shifted and dispersed.
• Education for employment has to mean vocations for planetary survival.
• As an endangered species, we need to revivify our natural advantage: social solidarity.
Dr Christopher Tremewan is secretary general of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities International Secretariat.