The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to internationalisation and global engagement in higher education, most notably the mobility of students, has been inestimable. Yet with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the subsequent digital transformation, a world of borderless opportunity has opened up. These technological advancements have presented the international academic world with a chance to reimagine not only the evolving role of universities as knowledge institutions, but the future of work too, and how higher education institutions prepare graduates for this new future.
In a recent webinar hosted by AppliedHE, an organisation that focuses on bridging the gap between higher education and employment, I was part of a panel that discussed the possibility of international higher education mobility returning to normal levels by September 2021.
It is my conviction that it is not practically possible to return to pre-COVID-19 levels by September this year. For one, vaccination roll-out is nowhere near what it should be in certain parts of the world, mainly because of European and Northern American vaccine nationalism, which is causing vaccinations in our part of the world and the Global South to move at a glacial pace. This means that those who have not been vaccinated will not be allowed into Europe or countries such as the US, Australia or China, which will reduce the volume of students travelling to higher education institutions abroad. Also, many in the Global South have been affected financially by the pandemic, and putting up the resources to study overseas will be less likely.
Yet while COVID-19 has been one of the most significant disruptors of the 21st century, it has had surprising benefits. The upshot to international academic mobility being restricted for the near (and possibly distant) future is that the old model of internationalisation had reached its sell-by date before the pandemic hit, and was rightly disrupted by COVID-19. This model did not truly represent the global movement of students, and it has become increasingly necessary to reinvent international student mobility. The pandemic has presented us with the possibility of reimagining global higher education so that it is driven by the values of equal, beneficial and genuine global mobility, rather than a one-way flow.
The new model will see a de-commodification of education and return it to a spirit of internationalism that advances education as a driver of social mobility and international understanding, as a reducer of conflict and job inequality, and of genuine sharing.
COVID-19 also pushed us harder to go digital, thus broadening the scope of global engagement. The idea of global engagement in higher education has tended to be lumped under one concept – people who leave their country to study in another. Yet it is important to note that there are various modes of internationalisation, one of which is encapsulated by a hybridised form of education. This is in fact a form of global engagement, and there are many other modes that can be developed through technology.
For instance, rather than a fully online education, the University of Pretoria (UP) has successfully been carrying out a hybrid model of teaching and learning; this is something that the new model of internationalism would benefit most from: students will be able to remain in their own regions but take courses elsewhere; they can travel part of the time, while some lessons can be taken online. The pandemic has thus presented an opportunity to build on the current momentum and develop online education further, embrace it as a delivery mode and utilise it to expand access to education.
The hybrid model, with its well-developed online dimension, provides opportunities for countries to tap into the burgeoning reskilling and lifelong learning markets, and enhance their international footprint. The impact of the pandemic on international student mobility will likely be pronounced and protracted, and this vibrant model will create globalised international education and exchange.
The future of work
If a reimagined higher education system is about placing focus on digitalisation that is hybrid in nature, it stands to reason that the world of work will also need to be reimagined in a similar way. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the pandemic has, and will, continue to have a massive impact on how we work, and universities need to ensure that graduates are appropriately skilled and prepared for it.
Research into mega trends list the top generic skills for the future as: sense-making, social intelligence, adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competencies, computational thinking, new media literacy, transdisciplinarity, a design mindset and virtual collaboration. To this end, UP will be launching the Centre for the Future of Work that will, through interdisciplinary research, investigate the emerging world of work and create the knowledge that can inform policies, regulations and practices for South Africa, Africa and world to be future-fit. The centre will explore questions around the benefits of diversity in the workplace, how an ageing global population will change the labour market and how COVID-19 is changing the nature of work, among others.
In addressing the future of work, universities are researching digitalisation and the new normal for working life in various ways, including whether it will be largely remote, a return to the pre-COVID era or a combination of both, the hybrid approach, which is most likely. We need to engender a new work life culture for this, with technology as an enabler of productivity, employment and lifelong learning for all. The past year has revealed that online meetings not only save time, but also facilitate greater national and international access in an increasingly borderless world; though it has also revealed that people still desire to meet physically. Therefore, it would be beneficial to have small groups physically meeting every week or two, with all physical distancing protocols observed.
In terms of equipping students for future employability, UP has also recognised the value of entrepreneurship as a major driver of innovation and job creation, and its importance in higher education. The University’s business incubator, TuksNovation, trains students to be entrepreneurs and employers, and provides specialised innovative thinking and support to entrepreneurs throughout their start-up growth journeys. UP has a growing number of local and international partnerships, and is motivated by the opportunities that these alliances present in support of the growing trend of small-business global entrepreneurship, which effectively boosts the internationalisation of small business.
Higher education institutions are in a unique, stimulating position – rather than prescribing possible interventions to maintain the status quo, the time has come to explore alternative futures and possible interventions towards these different futures. Effectively, we have the chance to build new models of internationalisation to produce a highly skilled, future-fit pool of graduates.
By Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria