‘There is a huge opportunity to offer an international curriculum’ – UP’s Prof Tawana Kupe at Times Higher Education webinar on silver linings of COVID-19

Posted on August 03, 2021

University of Pretoria (UP) Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe recently joined two other leaders in global higher education in a panel discussion hosted by Sara Custer in a Times Higher Education (THE) Campus webinar. Alongside Professor John Fritz, Associate Vice-President for Instructional Technology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Professor Jan Palmowski, Secretary General of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, the panel reflected on what the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about higher education and how universities can carry those lessons forward as they look to rebuild.

While the panellists acknowledged what a difficult year 2020 was and that the problems presented by the outbreak of COVID-19 almost 18 months ago are still present, they agreed that universities have had the opportunity to be uncharacteristically flexible and responsive. One of the most obvious silver linings has been the fast-forwarding into innovative ways of meeting and communicating, which has benefited campus collaboration. “We now have an interesting hybrid opportunity to take into the post-pandemic world,” Prof Kupe said. Prof Fritz highlighted that, from a logistical and budget perspective, conferences have been easier to attend and access to international and renowned guest speakers is no longer only for a few. Prof Palmowski affirmed this by saying that “meeting trans-continentally and having discussions in very normal and regular ways” has boosted partnerships. He also mentioned the positive impact that the time gain (from not needing to commute to and from an office) has had on those with young families or who are the primary caregiver to a parent or spouse.

Host Custer commented on the internationalisation of global engagement and how this could be seen as a silver lining. Prof Kupe responded to this by saying, “Previously our financial model depended on a large cohort of international students. So now we are having to ask ourselves, what are the other modes of internationalisation; what courses could be co-created and taught online, to include larger numbers? In the global South, many students are not able to access international education unless they receive a bursary. This is a huge opportunity to offer an international curriculum which transcends borders and boundaries.”

Another advantage that COVID-19 has forced is a technology-led shift. Prof Fritz mentioned that early on, faculty were concerned about the academic integrity of online exams. However, he said that it also allowed for innovative, alternative ways of assessing students, and pointed the audience to the University of Maryland’s research. Moreover, he said that more interactive, self-pacing programmes mean that courses’ DFW (drop/fail/withdraw) rates are lower. “Finish-Line Programmes, those aimed at individuals with some college education but no degree and previously long lost to the institution, mean that these former “drop outs” could return to the establishment because of access to fully online courses,” he said.

Another constructive implication of the pandemic, which Custer pointed out, is the rise in “Open Science”, with champions sharing knowledge through open access and collaborative development. She said that, firstly, it combats the problem that the world is facing because of invalid or problematic “facts” spread by social media and news outlets. Secondly, according to Prof Fritz, “it is an important opportunity for science to inform the culture.” He pointed out the “vital role of evidence and facts – we are not entitled to our own facts.” Thirdly, Prof Kupe argued that it would mean that we “don’t fetishise ‘premier league’ versus ‘minor league’ research, but instead focus on what the impact of the knowledge is”. He proposed that “interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is better suited to solving complex problems that humanity faces” and proceeded to say that what is needed is “mainstream training of academics so that they may engage in ‘translation’, making academia and its terms more accessible”. Custer added that previously we have incentivised academics to “publish or perish” but that with access to Open Science and globalised research, an outcomes-focused research approach is a new way to bring scientific research to the fore.

Further to this, Prof Palmowski pointed out that research has been “historically white”. Universities are beginning to realise that access to talent that exists in establishing more inclusive spaces – including greater gender representivity – means that academia and the wider community would benefit from diversity of thought.

The panellists agreed we now have an opportunity to adjust our pace and consider a collective rethink on how best to prepare young people for the future workplace, which focuses on a facile and nimble skill-based portfolio. “Academia has a responsibility to be more creative with its pedagogy, paying attention to enhancing the skills that students have while maintaining their wellbeing. We can’t go back to the way things were. And perhaps that is just as well,” Prof Kupe concluded.

You can watch the full conversation here.

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