Leaders in higher education, business and government attended the British Council’s annual Going Global conference, which took place virtually from the 15th to the 17th June 2021. Over 70 countries were represented by delegates, including Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors, and Government Ministers.

The 2021 conference invited participants to “Reimagine international tertiary education for a post-pandemic world”, through the lense of three over-arching themes: the changing student body, servicing the post-pandemic society, and protecting the planet.


In her opening remarks at the conference, Kate Ewart-Biggs, Interim Chief Executive of the British Council, emphasised the importance of building more ethical and equitable global partnerships for a sustainable new post-pandemic world. She introduced the British Council’s new Going Global Partnerships programme which aims to help UK and overseas universities, and some FE colleges, build just these kinds of connections.

Sessions probed HE institutions’ role in tackling climate change, and the unresolved tension between their need to operate globally, and their aims to address the green agenda and reduce their carbon footprint. Other sessions examined the challenges universities face in engaging with SDGs.

The decolonisation debate was re-assessed as speakers and delegates considered what progress has been made and what obstacles still stand in the way of finding resolutions in different countries.

The question of why young people choose to go to university prompted a range of responses from a panel of students and recent graduates. For Tabby Nawaz from the UK it was to get away from her small home town, for school student Lim Wan Yi from Singapore it will be to satisfy her personal aspiration to study law but also because “university has become the norm” in her country.  Zaid Omar, who attended university in his home country Malaysia then at the universities of Sheffield and Imperial College in the UK, said it was also because education is about improving society and getting the skills needed to help take his country forward.  

Equitable global partnerships

To what extent are International HEI partnerships in a post-pandemic and vulnerable world politically, ethically and culturally loaded? While “partnerships for the goals” is a named priority in the UN SDGs, the colonial history of HE in some countries means western epistemologies and aims are dominant, a session heard. In such a world, it is easy to talk about ethical global partnerships but hard to achieve them because of entrenched systems and practices. Priorities for western universities, such as rankings and selectivity, override concerns about equality, according to Professor Rob Tierney, Dean Emeritus of Education at the University of British Columbia.

Thinking on research funding is still quite siloed and yet many global challenges are linked, argued Andrew Thompson, UKRI International Champion for GCRF, UKRI, UK.  “For example, in Syria, food and water security and the conflict are entangled with each other. There are questions about whose knowledge we actually value. If we look at the global refugee crisis, 80 per cent of refugees exist in Global South, yet 80 per cent of research on this is from the Global North. Who gets to define the problem and how is it defined?  Research funding needs to flow to the South to be truly equitable."

Solbjørg Sjøveian, Head of the Section for Research, Innovation and Higher Education at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), noted that from a funder perspective, the digital divide is now a key concern and that, even in the management of international partnerships, while the shift to online offered an opportunity to include a wider range of voices in meetings, we must also ask "who are able to get their thoughts and views across on these digital platforms and who are not? One may assume that it may become even more difficult for marginalised groups to be heard."

Climate change

The UK’s High-level Climate Change Action Champion Nigel Topping made an impassioned appeal to universities and colleges to join the Race to Zero for Universities & Colleges and pledge to reach net-zero by 2030 or 2050 at the very latest.

What role can Higher Education institutions play in addressing issues around climate change and sustainability? University College of Estate Management Research Fellow Dr Renuka Thakore noted that universities should make use of systems thinking, to provide “holistic, integrated, and interdisciplinary education” on these complex issues. She called for institutions to connect more internationally, perhaps by inviting overseas lecturers to speak via online video about local issues and context.  

Professor Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor, Nottingham Trent University, noted that sustainability initiatives across the global HE sector tend to focus on campus estates, the energy efficiency of buildings, travel to work arrangements, and the efficiency of our supply chain, but there has been much less emphasis on addressing the environmental impact of institutional strategies - including international mobility. He asked how can universities reconcile the two ambitions of becoming more green and being international?

Decolonisation debate

The work of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) project Mobile Arts for Peace (MAP), a collaboration between the University of Lincoln and colleagues in Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan Rwanda and Nepal, was explored. The project empowers young people to inform the design and delivery of curricula and peacebuilding policy through working with academics, artists, local leaders and decision making bodies.

A historic moment for change in South African universities was wasted because five years after the Rhodes must fall student protests, very little has changed, according to Jonathan Jansen, Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University. Based on in depth interviews with academics at 10 of South Africa’s 26 public universities, he told the conference that it had been left to individuals to do their own thing as there had been no agreement on what de-colonialism meant. 

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence isn’t something that will arrive in future. It is here now, being used in chatbots, and virtual assistants. It’s also being trialled for grading assessments and making university offers. Jisc’s Jonathan Baldwin told delegates to expect it to be used more in the future, for dialogue-based tutorials, collaborative learning, recommendation engines, and AI-assisted content creation. He added that widespread adoption in education would be “relatively slow”, but that it could start to accelerate if a few forward-thinking university groups began to use it for interesting projects.

Knowledge diplomacy

It’s been widely remarked that we are going through a period of geopolitical tension. But Professor Dame Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool University, UK, said it is vital to build alliances and “ride these waves”. While the pandemic has shown the potential for international collaboration, the impacts have still been felt unequally. She urged HE institutions to continue working across boundaries to tackle issues such as health, justice and equality, even when optimism is harder to come by.

Offering a definition of knowledge diplomacy, Dr John Simon Rofe said it involved “a troika of representation, communication and negotiation”. Higher education facilitated knowledge through research and transactions between students and faculty but was not the sole proprietor. “All of us at this Going Global conference are diplomats on behalf of ourselves, our institutions, our research interests” said Dr Rofe, reader in Diplomatic and International Studies at SOAS, University of London, UK.


Research from the British Council and the Association of Colleges into how international technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is innovating and changing as a result of the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic - but showing a complete return to pre-pandemic TVET policy and practice is unlikely - was published and discussed.

The British Council’s Head of Education Research Michael Peak revealed the results of a short research project carried out in May and June this year, which surveyed students and leaders about the future of tertiary education. Students said they wanted to see more hybrid experiences, as well as more inclusivity and changes to the tuition fee structure. Leaders said they thought the student voice would get stronger, and the private sector would have an increased role. They also thought institutions would be expected to be contribute more to the “global good”. 

Research by Newcastle University in association with the ACU’s 'Higher Education and the SDG Network' has shown universities across the world interested in improving their reporting on progress towards SDG targets face a complex set of options, including institutional reviews, reporting to initiatives like the SDG Accord, and performance in league tables. There is both growing interest and competition among institutions in this area as a result, said Professor Phil McGowan, Chair of the SDG Committee at Newcastle University, UK.

Figures were presented showing the number of international students in the UK in 2019/20 was 550,000, while the number of non-UK based students engaged in EME (English Medium Education) was 430,000 – the latter category is growing much faster than the former. Countries are developing their own English teaching expertise. Oxford EMI, working with the British Council, is involved in a large scale programme in Taiwan to train local teachers to teach in English, for instance.