2017: What does it hold for universities and international opportunities?

22 January 2017
Vivienne Stern

Vivienne Stern

Universities UK International

This blog was originally published on the FCO blog​.

UK universities have astonishing international networks: it’s not just about recruiting international students to study in the UK, there are nearly 650,000 students on UK courses around the world; half of our research publications are produced with at least one international partner; our universities are working with industry partners in China, India, all over Europe, the US and a wide range of other places besides.

It is a privilege to work to support the growth of these links. Our universities are a source of huge pride for the UK. They can justifiably claim to be amongst the best in the world, and the work that they do, creating knowledge and sharing it across a wide range of disciplines is really a tremendous force for good in the world. Their international reach creates, I believe, an opportunity for the UK to contribute to the wellbeing, economic development and prosperity of many other parts of the world, not least in the central role they now play, working with international partners, addressing global challenges like climate change and disease.

I was moved, recently, to be present when the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine received the Times Higher Award for University of the Year for their monumentally important contribution to ending the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Their reservoir of expertise, networks with NGOs and volunteers, and ability to deploy their knowledge in real time – from accurate data collection through to mass online education for health professionals, the effort went far beyond the accelerated vaccine development which was itself part of a massive international effort. It was an illustration of an important idea: our universities are a national treasure, at their best when they are internationally engaged.

2016 held some challenges: the result of the UK referendum on membership of the EU means that 2017 and the years that follow will be dominated by work to ensure that leaving the EU does not hamper our ability to work with university partners in Europe and beyond. The UK government is committed to a post-Brexit Britain which has stronger international relationships with a broader range of countries, and I feel certain that UK universities have a central role to play in building these closer economic and human ties.

We are also glad to see a growing recognition of the role that tertiary education and research play in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, recognising that in everything from ending poverty to clean water; from climate action to life below water, the education, training and research provided by universities around the world will make a central contribution. So the UK government commitment to using some of its Overseas Development Assistance funding to support research collaboration in areas such as those I have listed, plus programmes like SPHEIR which funds consortia of universities and others to build higher education and research capacity in DFID priority countries, provide a very welcome platform for UK universities to build on their long established track record in these areas.

For me, international engagement also means encouraging UK students to spend some time abroad. This year my organisation will be launching a new campaign to get more UK students studying, working or volunteering abroad, as well as looking to develop more and better opportunities for international students to study on UK courses, in the UK or elsewhere.

Finally, as we leave behind a year marked by conflicts in the middle east, new geopolitical tensions, the sustained threat of terrorism in many countries and a refugee crisis, I see universities asking themselves what role they can play in challenging extreme ideology; supporting refugees; building economic opportunities and, critically, acting as forces for social cohesion within their own communities. In March, we will bring together university leaders from around the world to discuss this topic as part of our annual International Higher Education Forum.

Perhaps it is just the lingering effects of a recent two week holiday, but as I look ahead, I see much to be optimistic about for university international links in 2017.

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