How can the UK retain a role in global higher education?

This month, I was fortunate enough to attend the British Council’s flagship education conference – Going Global – in Berlin.

The conference theme was predicated on the expectation that the UK would leave in EU in March, but despite the continuing uncertainty, the core focus – the commitment of the UK HE sector to sustaining strong, collaborative relationships in Europe – was highly relevant.

In 2016, I felt a similar need to demonstrate this commitment when the City of Liverpool hosted the European Association of International Education Conference in the immediate aftermath of the UK Referendum. This coincided with the beginning of my term of office as President of Universities UK and I don’t think I – or anyone else – could have predicted the course of events between then and now.

Support from all quarters

Whilst the political way forward is still unclear, what is completely clear – and has been over the past two years – is the unwavering support we have received from colleagues across Europe and the reciprocated desire to maintain strong relationships. We remain united in our commitment to working with our respective governments to ensure continued and future UK access to EU programmes – Erasmus, ERC Fellowships, Horizon Europe – all of which have contributed substantially to the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading nations for research and innovation.

This year’s conference focused on “Knowledge Diplomacy and the Digital World” and started with an announcement of our own: the appointment of Kaplan Open Learning (KOL) as the University of Liverpool’s new partner for online learning. We are already recognised as a European market leader for wholly online postgraduate programmes, but this new partnership offers the University an exciting opportunity to further develop its work in this area.

During this year’s conference, we learnt about developments in online learning from different country and regional perspectives. From Brazil to Nigeria to Pakistan, we all see the potential of digital technologies to transform student learning and to widen access on an unprecedented scale.

Shared goals

It is always a pleasure to meet with educators from around the world, knowing that we each hold a shared set of values and goals. Ultimately, we are all committed to the enrichment of the lives of those who study or work with us and, more broadly, to local, national and international impact.  However the ways in which we deliver these impacts differ significantly, depending on local and national context, and this adds great complexity, particularly in an increasingly borderless world. Jane Knights’ thought provoking paper on knowledge diplomacy gave much food for thought on this topic: can our collaborations be truly mutual if national policies are fundamentally grounded in the context of economic development and growth?

Similarly, the shift from bi-lateral to multi-literalism is becoming more significant: international mobility and collaboration within the ASEAN region shows no signs of slowing; the ARUA network is playing a critical part in defining a research agenda based on the needs of Africa.

We all achieve more when we work together and we all want policy and funding environments which facilitate this. The latest Shape of Global Higher Education report highlighted that governments think so too, with continued investment in international education initiatives worldwide.

The significance of the event being hosted in Berlin, a historically divided city, during a year that will mark three decades since the fall of the wall was not lost on the conference delegates. It was a very powerful reminder that, particularly in the current world climate, we, as educators, can, should and indeed must play an active role in ensuring that our disagreements and our differences matter less than our common humanity. We are at a moment in our shared histories when internationalisation based on true reciprocity is more important than ever.

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