UK higher education facing geopolitical tensions and fourth industrial revolution

“It’s utterly clear from the Covid experience that not only do we require international collaboration, we must accelerate it,” said Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor, University of Cambridge, highlighting a project the university has joined with Tsinghua, LSE and others to combat climate change.

“But here, it’s obvious that there are risks. Geopolitics is clearly getting in the way of international collaboration. Big power competition, as well as real issues of value, diversity, human rights concerns, security issues, IP, all of those things we’re going to have to focus upon in the next short while.

“Geopolitics is clearly getting in the way of international collaboration”

“Covid disruption is clearly a warning to us, but so too is geopolitics, particularly challenges in relation to relations with China. Cost constraints are still major issue: what’s the effect on university budgets if international student flows don’t grow or even reduce? And on the current UK model of cross subsidising research endeavours on the back of international student fees?”

Margaret Gardner AC, president and vice-chancellor at Monash University, echoed Toope’s thoughts, adding that similar conversations are playing out across many top English-speaking international student destinations, including the US and Australia.

“As someone in a university that actually has a campus in Malaysia and a campus in China, as well as Indonesia, it is absolutely true that you must be awake to geopolitical trends and insecurities and definitely geopolitical insecurity,” she said.

“You have to be very clear about, from the national standpoint of the university, what you are required to do in terms of dealing with security matters and potential foreign interference.”

In his plenary session, Adrian Monck, managing director of the World Economic Forum compelled higher education to adjust to challenges associated with the fourth industrial revolution, and “the whole suite of technologies that will drive the kind of changes we saw in the 19th century and again through the 20th century”.

Companies such as Google, Walmart, Amazon and top end blue chip employers are “starting to see that degrees don’t deliver performance bonuses or diversity or the kinds of skills that make people valuable colleagues”, he said.

“What does the fourth industrial revolution mean for recruitment and training of graduates? World leading companies discover with data that there isn’t really a correlation between an extremely expensive social spend higher education and job performance. They discover they’re not just learning ability, but emotional intelligence and diversity are key for workplace success. And the last two are underserved by universities,” he highlighted.

“World leading companies discover with data that there isn’t really a correlation between an extremely expensive social spend higher education and job performance”

“If the challenge of opening up higher education internationally to more flexible delivery, to meet the needs of the underrepresented, to meet the needs of people at all stages of their working lives, is to be taken up at this time around, universities are uniquely well placed to meet those challenges, but it will need support and imagination from governments, and it’ll need partnership with business to ensure that cost flexibility and delivery meet everybody’s needs,” he said.

Other participants in a session on international student engagement also emphasised the importance of continuing to engage and exchange with partners and international students around the world, particularly with those students currently overseas and unable to travel.

“Although scholars do say that they want opportunities to network and engage with one another, we are also seeing lower attendance [at] some of the events than we normally would in different circumstances,” noted Alicia Herbert, director of education, gender and equality at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

“This is likely due to the volume of video calls that many people have had to endure over the course of the past year… [But] one particularly popular initiative was running short events for scholars and then leaving the call open for about half an hour or so afterwards so that scholars can just chat amongst themselves without the presence of staff.

Anne Marie Graham, CEO at UKCISA also suggested universities work more closely with student unions.

“I think they have done some amazing work during the pandemic in terms of engaging students and including students. They are a great resource,” she said.

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