15 June 2021

At the Going Global conference today an international panel met to explore the role of knowledge diplomacy in the aftermath of the global pandemic and in the face of increasingly ‘toxic’ geo-politics.

The panel agreed that knowledge diplomacy is not simply a “feel-good” academic concept with little of value to offer the real world and discussed the role of higher education and research in the current global context.

Prof. Dame Janet Beer, Vice Chancellor, University of Liverpool, UK, said it would be wrong to think of knowledge diplomacy as something that exists separately from global politics.  She said: “Education, science and research have all been used by governments to build alliances and to sometimes exercise power.  We’re in a contested space constantly. I don’t think knowledge diplomacy as a concept is under threat, it’s just that things are shifting yet again." 

She added that developments in recent years have created lots of interesting questions for universities to respond to but said "This is territory we are used to navigating.".

On the issue of  HE and research being increasingly drawn into geo-politics, Dr Esther Brimmer, Chief Executive, NAFSA, USA, said that higher education institutions are being asked to deal with some of the big questions of social inequality and providing the skills for knowledge based jobs, adding “Critical issues of the day are on our research agenda.”.

Regarding the broader role of HEIs and focusing on the UK, Tom Fletcher CMG, Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University, UK, argued that the UK has been’ too complacent’ at leadership and political level about the advantages it still has in higher education.  He said a lot of that is under threat and that the real investment is coming from elsewhere, which presents us with a huge challenge. 

The panel agreed that the trend to less mobility or regional mobility will become much more important even after the pandemic.

Regarding UK outbound mobility, Janet Beer said that we will redouble our effort in this area.

“Our role is to enable people to maximise their potential.  In the UK, our successful response to the pandemic has been down to two of our major institutions, the National Health Service and universities, working in partnership.  The pandemic has shown us ways we can work differently and that our work is more interconnected because of it.  Equality of opportunity is what we should be working on. Collaborations won’t happen unless we actively pursue them. “

The panel responded to the question of 'how might we leverage ‘the moment’ scientists have had in the pandemic to reset and reboot the global citizen agenda?'

Esther Brimmer responded: “The fact that we had to use global research cooperation to deal with the pandemic and being able to connect online allowed us greater social learning and access.”

Tom Fletcher argued that we learned that experts matter, governments matter, international cooperation matters, we learnt what we can survive without, and what we can’t survive without in education. Our teaching systems are more adaptable than we realised.  Students are more hungry for education. Social interaction is crucial to education.  But If you leave things as they are, inequality will increase.

As the session ended, Maddalaine Ansell made a final point on the importance of education to give people the skills to interrogate information to find out what might be true or not be true. She said it was vital that people develop the skills to think critically about information.

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