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Equity in focus for post-Covid rebuild – Going Global 2021

Improving access and equity in global higher education, as the sector grapples with geopolitical challenges, was in the spotlight at British Council’s 2021 Going Global conference.

The pandemic has "demonstrated the enormous importance of international collaboration, most notably in the research response to the pandemic", speakers said. Photo: Unsplash

"We must bear in mind that what is working for some, may not be working for all"

Speakers at the virtual event also reiterated the power of international partnerships in global politics and welcomed the ‘come back’ of global citizens.

Global higher education is “still facing the pre-existing inequalities in educational life chances” as it prepares for a post-Covid world, noted British Council interim chief executive Kate Ewart-Biggs.

“Serious efforts” to address exclusion will require “inclusive curricula and pedagogy that will help to educate a new generation of students with a commitment to global and societal good”, she explained.

While 71% of young people across Europe are enrolled in tertiary education, in sub-Saharan Africa the same figure is less than 10%, she highlighted.

Global partnerships allow the sector to “respond more effectively” to climate and education emergencies and other global challenges, Ewart-Biggs continued.

“The last year has been one in which has been underlined how interconnected we all are, one that has demonstrated the enormous importance of international collaboration, most notably in the research response to the pandemic,” vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool Janet Beer said.

However, now is the right time to reimagine international tertiary education for a post-pandemic world, she added.

“It’s important to reflect on the impact of the pandemic and the effects of our collective response to it have been unevenly felt. In the UK, those with the most limited means have been hardest hit. And globally, while rich countries race ahead with vaccination programs, many poorer countries are not even able to vaccinate those on the front line.

“In reimagining our work, international tertiary education for a post-pandemic world, we must bear in mind that what is working for some, may not be working for all.”

The UK sector must collaborate with government to drive forward the country’s international education strategy in a post-pandemic context, “with continued emphasis on building sustainable and equitable partnerships in transnational education and with student mobility”, Beer continued.

But providing improved equitable access is not the only issue, others highlighted.

“Pre-pandemic participation numbers were going up, completion rates are not at the same level”

In the US alone, 36 million people have stopped their secondary education studies before receiving a credential, VP of Impact and Planning at Lumina Foundation Courtney Brown said.

“Pre-pandemic participation numbers were going up, completion rates are not at the same level… and those people are more likely to be from low income backgrounds and people of colour. We’re creating an even bigger gap between the haves [and the have nots],” she noted.

The rapid adaptation to online learning during Covid-19 has created an “extensive” digital divide, Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for Tertiary Education at the World Bank underscored.

“We are challenged by institutions and structures that don’t have automatic credit recognition, that don’t allow for adaptation of online learning on par with in-person learning… The adaptation of the sector to allow for cross-border delivery, online delivery, stacked degrees, microcredentials, most of those elements of the future of higher education are not built in to the regimes that are in place right now.”

Secretary general of the African Research Universities Alliance Ernest Aryeetey also urged for equity in research.

“We’ve been [working] with UKRI basically to ensure that the African voice is a part of the solution understanding… the research issues to be investigated.

“Equity means being a part of the discussion right from the beginning, not at the tail end… We don’t want to simply to wait and be invited to the table after a grant has been made.”

Additionally, UK universities minister Michelle Donelan hailed widening participation in the UK’s Turing scheme and spoke of a new generation of “truly global citizens”.

“Global citizens, a phrase once disparaged, [is] now one coming back into its own,” Ewart-Biggs added.

While attention must be given to equity and international partnerships, potential risks are “becoming increasingly complex as geopolitics evolve”, Beer continued.

“Global citizens, a phrase once disparaged, [is] now one coming back into its own”

“We must continue to promote the huge benefits of global collaboration for our research endeavours,” she said.

“We are working positively. [We] can’t be naive. You have to pick your way carefully and you have to make sure that staff and students are protected, but we cannot fail in our duty to to work across borders.”

However, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in the US, Jeffrey D. Sachs, emphasised differences in the way governments and academics view the world and the multifaceted role of universities.

Too much of the talk at the recent G7 meeting in Cornwall was about opposition to China, he said. “Academics don’t talk that way. They don’t think that way. China is not the enemy… Universities are good at cooperation.”

While in certain countries academics are jailed or threatened, universities play a big role in sustainable development and in “thinking freely and thinking globally”, Sachs added.

“It’s our role as universities to keep those connections, to work closely with our Chinese colleagues, for example, not to let government officials or politicians… tell us who is the enemy and who isn’t the enemy, because most of that is a fiction, not a reality.”

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