Internationalisation has not been harmed by the pandemic

New York University’s multiple sites around the world were instrumental in minimising Covid-related disruption, says Andrew Hamilton

October 7, 2022
Covid molecules orbiting the globe
Source: iStock

In early September of this year, I visited NYU’s global academic site in Prague. We were holding a small ceremony to welcome 13 Ukrainian students who, having been displaced by war, will study at the Prague site this academic year.

It was a modest get-together, but very moving. The warmth of the NYU Prague community’s welcome was striking, as was the relief and appreciation of the Ukrainian group and the sense of solidarity in the room.

Afterwards, as I was thinking about the event, I couldn’t help recalling that just a few years prior, it had become popular sport to predict the waning of global higher education. In the fall of 2019, the Chronicle of Higher Education had written an article about how global education had “lost its sheen” for US universities.

I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. After the experience in Prague, I believed it even less.

NYU’s global presence and commitment to engagement were among the features that had drawn me most strongly to its presidency. After being at a good number of universities as student, postdoc, junior faculty member, tenured faculty member, provost and vice-chancellor, I had concluded that universities succeed or decline based on their ability to adapt, to innovate, to reinvent themselves. Even from my then-post in the UK, the ranks of US universities engaging in or aspiring to a global presence struck me as growing, not declining.

That estimation was reinforced when I became president of NYU. For one thing, global higher education efforts quickly became the topic on which colleagues from other universities most frequently sought my input. And for another, in October 2019, on the heels of an Association of American Universities meeting, I met in Washington with the presidents or senior officials of approximately a dozen US universities that either had or were planning a presence abroad; although the specifics of the universities’ global efforts took many different forms, there was, nevertheless, collective excitement and commitment regarding this expanding direction for US higher education and collective agreement on its positive trajectory.

Then came Covid-19.

NYU has degree-granting campuses in China and Abu Dhabi, in addition to its home campuses in New York’s Greenwich Village and Brooklyn neighbourhoods, and we have global academic sites in 10 locations around the world, as well as two in the US. If universities seemed vulnerable as Covid spread, universities with a widespread global presence seemed especially vulnerable. Early in 2020, consulates began closing, visas became harder to obtain, nations started shutting their borders and travel restrictions spread. If there was a moment when a global strategy for universities seemed dubious, it was then.

Notwithstanding the pandemic and its restrictions, NYU found that students were eager to carry on their education and continue to be connected to other students and faculty. And while travelling long distances internationally proved impossible for many students, travelling more moderate distances – to an adjacent country, or within a country – turned out to be doable.

In short, we substituted proximity for distance. We redirected thousands of students who normally would have studied in, for example, New York to an NYU global academic site close to where they live and to which they could travel. We called this initiative “Go Local”, and it provided flexibility to thousands of students, enabling them to enrol for a combination of hybrid learning and in-person student life. Go Local permitted thousands of our students, both in the US and abroad, to continue making academic progress and being part of an NYU academic site when they might otherwise have been unable to do so.

And so the very network of global sites that had seemed a weakness turned into a source of strength. Without those global sites, NYU would not have been able to accomplish what we did.

While the pandemic might at first have spotlighted the seeming weaknesses of global higher education – especially the expectation of largely unfettered mobility – it also highlighted that the direst challenges we face, the ones that require the most intense study and the widest cooperation, are global in nature. Climate change, human health, war, violent extremism, economic and racial disparities, or disruptions to international supply chains: all these demand a global response – which, in turn, requires global education and research.

I will be thinking on that lesson when, next week, NYU serves as host for Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit. The summit – itself a global gathering that reaffirms the value of international perspectives – will draw hundreds of participants and attendees from around the world to New York to discuss the trajectory of higher education, of universities, and of student expectations. As I gather with all these colleagues and as I think back on my recent visit to the Ukrainian students now studying at NYU’s facility in Prague, one aspect of higher education’s trajectory will be crystal clear to me: its global future is robust.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of internationalisation’s decline are greatly exaggerated.

Andrew Hamilton is the 16th president of New York University. He is a professor of chemistry, a fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Times Higher Education’World Academic Summit takes place in New York from 10 to 12 October.

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