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How Higher Education Might Change For The Better

By Niamh O

Updated July 15, 2020 Updated July 15, 2020

COVID-19 has affected all walks of life, and it’s quite clear the world won’t go back to the way it was before the global pandemic.

Dr Joanna Newman, Secretary General and Chief Executive of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, suggests the coronavirus pandemic offers an opportunity to reimagine international education, find new ways to work together, strengthen existing partnerships that span borders, and build new ones that have equity as a core principle.

She says that, while universities are still adapting, the technology they’re using now can be harnessed to expand access to education forever. TopUniversities caught up with Dr Newman to find out a little more.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities

The ACU is dedicated to building a better world through higher education, and international collaboration is central to this ambition.

As Chief Executive and Secretary General, Dr Newman is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization, which has 150 staff and over 500 member universities in over 50 countries.

Dr Newman said: “Our network covers some of the world’s largest and smallest countries, and over two-thirds of our members are in low- and middle-income countries. We also run the UK government’s three major international scholarship schemes and programs for many other funders.”

Since joining the ACU in April 2017, Dr Newman says one of the biggest changes she’s seen (before the pandemic) is universities embracing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

She said: “Universities have always played a critical role in the development of their communities and nations, and the SDGs provide a comprehensive and universally-agreed framework to link this work explicitly with the international development agenda.

“Last year [the ACU] launched our Higher Education and the SDGs Network to support university efforts to directly engage in the SDG agenda through teaching and learning, research, sustainable operations, engagement and impact, and partnerships.”

Reimagining international education

COVID-19 has had a far-reaching impact on higher education, with the main challenges being the restrictions to face-to-face contact and travel.

Dr Newman said: “Universities are inherently social spaces, and collaboration is an essential part of academic work.

“The value of face-to-face interaction will endure, but the pandemic has forced all of us to innovate and find new ways to continue to build and develop international partnerships and links, including opportunities for international students.”

Dr Newman thinks the pandemic has offered an opportunity for change. She said: “The crisis forced us all to go online at such short notice, and we have adopted and adapted to the use of new technologies in order to connect and collaborate with each other.

“Online and blended learning has the potential to expand access to education, particularly in developing countries, by enabling universities to offer quality teaching at scale.”

She also thinks we need to pay attention to inequalities, as not all students or universities have equal access to online resources. She said: “Universities will need to work together to find new methods of collaboration through which they can strengthen existing partnerships and build new ones that have equity as a core principle.”

Universities are centers of curiosity and discovery; they work within a global community bound by standards of practice and are connected through channels of communication that cross borders.

International mobility offers life-changing opportunities to individuals, yields benefits for host universities through expanded perspectives and intercultural understanding and enables institutions to develop long-term partnerships.

Important technology

It’s hard to imagine a time when we weren’t glued to videoconferencing tools. Dr Newman said: “Disruptive technologies will always be important, and universities provide the right environment to enable and nurture the innovation required. But deep relationships between people from different backgrounds and cultures are built on much more than meetings, virtual or otherwise.”

The value of breaking bread with someone shouldn’t be underestimated, but options are limited at present. Dr Neman added: “Universities are looking to develop new ways of online international learning – of advancing cross-cultural understanding and empowering globally-aware individuals – and the ACU provides a platform for them to brainstorm and share ideas.”

Innovative changes to higher education

ACU member universities have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in several ways. From cutting-edge medical science to supporting local communities, universities have shown how they can make a vital impact on society.

Dr Newman said: “Universities have moved courses and assessments online, kept research going during lockdowns, expanded library services beyond campus walls, and supported the wellbeing of staff and students.”

The ACU will run a webinar serious for members to share their experiences and best practice, enabling universities to learn from each other and continue to innovate.

The importance of access and inclusion in international education

COVID-19 has fostered the adoption of new technologies, with the move online meaning more people can be reached – making education more inclusive.

Dr Newman said: “Universities have a responsibility to consider their role in making our societies more equal – through access to higher education, curricula and course content, and their own operations and structures.”

She said the ACU’s events and activities have shown that virtual international communication and collaboration is valuable:

“It can open up opportunities for international experiences and learning to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access them. But to fully realize the potential, we need to bridge the digital divide in terms of both technology and skills – providing students and staff with the means and skills to access and deliver online learning.”

This article was originally published in July 2020 .

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Written by

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (;, creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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