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'Universities around the globe are really proving their worth'

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Bert van der Zwaan on the impact the corona crisis will have on universities
Els Heuts
8 min.

The corona crisis will have a substantial impact on the internationalisation of higher education, says Bert van der Zwaan, former Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University, chair of Nuffic’s Board of Trustees and writer of the book 'Haalt de universiteit 2040?', translated into English under the title 'Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach'. The inflow of Asian students has ground to a halt and digitisation will soon become the new mobility. "We are being given a sneak preview of the future."

How will the pandemic affect the internationalisation of higher education?
"I suspect it will have a substantial impact: the process of internationalisation will structurally change and the consequences for global mobility will be immense. This is due to the huge leap in digitalisation that is currently in progress and reconsideration of the process of globalisation. Another factor is that global power is clearly shifting from the United States to Asia at an accelerated rate. America's position appears to have definitively become that of a follower rather than a leader and as a result, a new world order is being ushered in."

What does this mean for worldwide student mobility?
"As scientific leadership is shifting to Asia, the flow of students moving from East to West will decrease and the flow from East to East will increase. This will be a bitter pill to swallow for countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia as many Anglo-Saxon universities are financially dependent on international students, especially Asian students. This area will become a battleground and I don't expect the inflow of Asian students will ever achieve the same peaks again."

'Internationalisation will structurally change'

What will this mean for the Netherlands?
"In our country, the majority of international students originate from the European Union. In the short term, this mobility will be hampered by travel restrictions, although in the long term, this inflow will be much more resilient. Universities that have substantially gambled on high numbers of non-EU students will be hit harder, although ultimately, the Netherlands will weather the storm relatively well."

Will the pandemic also have a lasting effect on outward mobility?
"Outward mobility within the EU will recover reasonably quickly: demand for Erasmus exchanges among Dutch students is high and will remain so. However, in the long run, mobility will be undermined by digitalisation."

'Digitalisation will replace mobility'

How will the immense rise in digitalisation that we are witnessing affect academia?
"In the Netherlands, the current situation has resulted in an enormous rise in digitalisation and we have discovered that many different types of education can be successfully conducted online. I expect digitalisation to replace mobility in every possible way. Universities will invest in online education that will be recognised by institutions in other countries. This development has already been playing out within a number of 'Macron networks' set up by the French president with the aim of establishing networks of European universities. These networks are already offering students the chance to participate in almost-live digital classrooms. I think this is a very productive model for the future."

Personal development is one of the main benefits of an international student experience. How can you facilitate this in an era of decreasing mobility?
"Studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity, but it is not absolutely essential to students’ personal development, and this is a viewpoint that Nuffic also shares. While it is indeed essential that Dutch universities establish an international classroom that is connected to everything that is happening in the world, this can largely be done digitally and by recruiting foreign lecturers. This is a terrible crisis in so many ways, although it is also the right time to consider what internationalisation truly means to higher education. It has often been seen as synonymous with mobility, but it goes much further than that."

'Lecturer exchanges are a vital factor in creating an international classroom.'

What threats does the pandemic pose for internationalisation?
"We must be careful not to frantically suppress all mobility for no good reason. Lecturer exchanges are a vital factor in creating an international classroom and to ensure that Dutch universities maintain their competitive edge. It is also vital that we are able to uphold our talent policy, meaning that our talented academics must be able to gain valuable experience abroad and we must successfully attract top academic talent to the Netherlands. Our politicians really need to pay attention to this issue rather than just focusing on mobility in itself."

What role do you envisage for Nuffic?
"Nuffic needs to capitalise on new types of internationalisation. For example, how do you ensure digital exchanges achieve the same learning outcomes as physical exchanges? We need new European models for student collaboration, talent policy and exchange programmes. In this changing world, the Dutch education sector will need expertise in internationalisation and as a knowledge institution, Nuffic will be an ideal partner in this regard."

In your book 'Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach', you say that we must change the way we educate our students and shift the focus from knowledge transfer to knowledge application and creativity. Will the current situation facilitate this shift?
"The crisis has certainly resulted in a great deal more creativity in the education sector, with rules being relaxed if and whenever necessary. Students are having to demonstrate qualities other than just knowledge reproduction. They are having to cope alone and make independent decisions, which provides excellent training in problem-solving and teaches them to adapt quickly and creatively: skills that will be increasingly important in the future. Knowledge is everywhere, but evaluating how to use this knowledge requires training. We are currently being given a sneak preview of the future."

'Politicians are listening to scientists again.'

You also wrote that universities must take the lead in public discourse, but their voices are not being heard loudly enough. What role do you think science is playing at the moment?
"People are becoming increasingly sceptical of scientific knowledge, with President Trump serving as a perfect example of this. However, one positive development of this crisis is that people are listening to scientists again and universities are really proving their worth. During press conferences, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte emphasises that government policy is firmly based on scientific evidence and politicians are listening to scientists again.

I see this as a massive opportunity for universities to use the lessons from this crisis to help contribute to a more robust and resilient future. We can work from home, there's plenty we can do without flying and we can survive perfectly well without holidays in Hawaii. It would be wonderful if we can see this not only as a terrible crisis, but also as an opportunity to create a different society in which international science can make the most of the spotlight that society is currently shining on it.

In 2015, based on conversations with colleagues across 3 continents, Bert van der Zwaan wrote a volume of essays titled 'Haalt de universiteit 2040?', which was translated into English under the title 'Higher Education in 2040: A Global Approach'. In this book, Van der Zwaan concluded that the future of the university was not guaranteed and should be rethought.

Bert van der Zwaan (1952) is chair of Nuffic’s Board of Trustees. He studied Geology and Palaeontology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Utrecht University and was a professor of Biogeology in Nijmegen and in Utrecht. He served as Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University from 2011 until 2018.

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