/ 11 March 2020

How universities can use the coronavirus outbreak to promote regionalisation

Universities have taken steps such as deactivating their biometric systems to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The coronavirus is wreaking havoc globally; it has also affected the work of universities. Some countries have closed down academic projects and international interactions completely; many universities have enforced travel bans to control and curb incoming and outgoing travel for staff and students. Of course, this affects research, as well as teaching and learning. In particular, it affects internationalisation projects at universities. 

International travel and staff and student exchanges are crucial for universities. Knowledge production is dependent on a diverse set of views and experiences and most universities and centres of higher learning put much time and effort into ensuring a diverse and multicultural experience for both staff and students. 

With restrictions on international travel, fewer student and staff exchanges will take place and the overall internationalisation project will suffer. Internationalisation at universities also affects bottom lines. International research exchanges and knowledge production generate considerable income, not least through conference attendance. They also play a part in attracting international students, and affect university rankings. 

We have to assume the coronavirus is not going to shut down universities and, even if it comes to that, we have to hope that such an eventuality will not be long term. 

This said, the current situation comes with opportunities. We have a chance to reassess what internationalisation means and how it is promoted at universities. We have an opportunity to take stock and reflect on what we want to achieve through our internationalisation projects. 

This situation provides opportunities for increasing the interconnectedness of universities and using new technology to promote internationalisation, particularly in resource-constrained environments. With dwindling travel budgets and research funding, we need innovative solutions for how we can interact with each other without necessarily having to travel. The technology is there and the current situation gives us an opportunity to test it on a larger scale. 

In July last year, I attended a conference in Madrid. While I was there, I presented my own research and also thoroughly enjoyed all the collegial and cultural interactions. I also delivered a presentation using Skype to a conference back home. Not at any point was the quality of interactions compromised. The point is not to prioritise one method of delivery over the other, but to recognise that, as with all ventures, we must augment experiences and always prioritise their quality.

Sustainable best practices

Sustainability is crucial and the global debate about the future role of universities focuses on how well we implement, and work with, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 17 talks directly to the development and strengthening of global partnerships for co-operation around sustainable development. Innovation in how research, as well as teaching and learning, is conducted at universities in aid of the UN SDGs is crucial and provides universities with an opportunity to take a lead and shape the global debate. Universities cannot afford to be ivory towers: by taking the lead in creating new, innovative and, importantly, sustainable partnerships they will strengthen their own relevance. 

Furthermore, we should use existing, internal resources more effectively — in particular, human resources. At the University of Johannesburg international students comprise 8% of the total student population; international staff make up 18% of the total staff contingency. This is our moment to bring their voices into the broader discussions at the university; to draw on and listen to a diverse set of international experiences. In the main, these are citizens from Southern African countries. Sometimes in our eagerness to go further and further afield we can miss out on what is on our doorstep. 

Of course, nothing can replace real interactions, experiences and cultural exchanges.. However, looking closer to home is rewarding in and of itself. Facilitating opportunities for South African researchers and students to interact with peers in the region has long been a priority; now is the time to promote projects of regionalisation and, in some way, decolonisation. 

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the senior director of the University of Johannesburg’s division for internationalisation