University leaders need to step up geopolitical analysis

By: Yojana Sharma

Steering a university through the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international student flows has become a major challenge for university leaders, but global tensions and a changing geopolitical environment are also disrupting and changing student flows.

University leaders need to step up analysis of geopolitical events and trends in order to improve forward planning, experts say.

Geopolitical uncertainty is shifting patterns and requires “serious analysis” by universities to “ride the wave” said Margaret Gardner, vice-chancellor of Australia’s Monash University, which is heavily reliant on international students and also has campuses in China and Malaysia and outposts in Canada and India.

“We are in an age of geopolitical uncertainty. It is the hallmark of a world-class university; you are global; your staff are from everywhere; your students are from everywhere; your knowledges drawn from everywhere; your alumni are everywhere,” Gardner told University World News in a recent interview, noting that “geopolitical uncertainties, over and above climate uncertainties and other uncertainties”, are having an impact on institutions.

In particular, tensions between China and the United States, China and Australia in recent years as well as on other countries such as Japan have meant that universities are stepping up or looking for guidance from university bodies and their governments on how to navigate the diplomatic minefield and continue recruiting international students and pursuing international research collaborations.

US visa restrictions on academics from countries including China, a number of high profile investigations into researchers branded as ‘spies’, increased vetting of university research collaborations and broader foreign funding in the US, and Australia and now also the United Kingdom and European countries as well as Japan, have made universities wary, but few have so far explicitly drawn up protocols on how to deal with it.

Gardner points in particular to a warning issued by China in June to its own citizens not to travel to Australia to study, which would have a huge potential impact on an institution like Monash with over 13% of its student body from China, leading to huge revenue fluctuations.

“We cannot be blind to what is happening, and we have to therefore take note and be careful and walk carefully in the face of however diplomatic relations are playing out,” Gardner said.

“We are engaged in China and we expect to continue to be engaged in China. We have to work in a world that is going through a period of uncertainty and it is important that we understand that world, and we are an important part for other people understanding working in that world.”

Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, was until last year vice-chancellor at the University of Western Australia and noted in a recent interview with University World News that tensions between Hong Kong and China over student protests had caused underlying tensions between student communities on campuses.

“This was really quite dominant in the news at the time and it was impacting both on Australian and to a certain extent partly New Zealand universities, where conversations were taking place among students predominantly around what was happening in China and where that might lead,” she said.

Australian universities saw a surge of interest from students from Hong Kong as tensions with mainland China rose, and Hong Kong students were offered extended visas after Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong freedoms and dissent in July.

Freshwater believes universities should not just stand back on geopolitical issues. Universities “have such a significant role to play in soft diplomacy and in soft power and we need to make sure that we are really using all of our resources and our skills – we are highly skilled at this – in helping nations, communities, ourselves as universities, to understand the benefits of interaction, exchange, learning about different cultures, understanding other people’s opinions, experiences,” she said.

Freshwater made a point of attending a memorial service for victims of the Christchurch shootings at mosques in the New Zealand city that occurred in March 2019, killing 51 and injuring dozens. “It’s not just about being present. It’s also about making sure I understand, as fully as I can, the complexities of the environment I’m situated in in order to make informed decisions.”

Geopolitical impact on universities

Others caution a step back, as scientists are often able to collaborate even when their own countries are at loggerheads.

“Universities are inherently borderless” in creating and disseminating knowledge, said Jenny Lee, professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona in the United States and an expert on geopolitical influences on higher education.

“While there are political pressures to monitor, we must keep in mind these may be more politically motivated and not necessarily be in the best interests of the institutions,” Lee told University World News, pointing to possible impacts on the broader academic and research mission of universities and their ability to attract top scientists, top students and scholars from abroad.

“The assumption going in, at least on [the] part of the [US] federal government and FBI Director Christopher Wray, is that universities are vulnerable,” said Lee referring to Wray’s warnings to universities on the threat to university science and intellectual property from Chinese ‘spies’ as US-China relations deteriorated over the past two years.

Similar warnings have been issued by UK intelligence agencies and agencies in Europe, and by the Japanese government, which could lead to disruptions in university collaborations.

Nonetheless Lee believes not much is being done in US universities to understand and respond to geopolitically motivated restrictions.

There is little that goes beyond existing institutional protocols required for funding agencies, that for example, require disclosures on conflicting interests or compliance with export control lists, which restrict transactions with certain institutions and organisations, for example, with links to the Chinese military, she said.

Akiyoshi Yonezawa, professor and director of the international strategy office at Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan, told a recent webinar organised by the Oxford-based Centre for Global Higher Education that Japan has also been facing diplomatic pressure from the US.

“Universities are now becoming cautious about collaborating with Chinese researchers although we have long[standing] relationships with Chinese academics and universities. So we are already under the influence of bigger geopolitics,” Yonezawa noted.

“The question is how leading research universities can develop their collaborations against emerging ideological blocs,” he said and warned that this was necessary for collaborations built up between academics “not to go back to the era of the Cold War”.

Gardner said that, despite the geopolitical climate, big research collaborations with China were so far proceeding well at Monash University and its branch campuses. “But, like all areas of uncertainty, including geopolitical uncertainty, we will have to keep a watching brief on how this is proceeding and we will operate effectively taking account of Chinese government and Australian government directives and the environment,” she said.

Monash InSight team

Monash is unusual in that it has a seven-person in-house ‘InSight team’ of specialised researchers to analyse geopolitical and other issues that can impact on cross-border research collaboration and international student and faculty recruitment.

“It is important to always be [switched] on. The InSight team is there to scan the environment and it does quite sophisticated modelling of all sorts of things and projections about what might happen,” Gardner said.

“Then you can plan around that – look at what the impact might be, take corrective action where you can, make judgements about what else you might need to do. It is quite sophisticated planning.”

Behrooz Hassani-Mahmooei is principal specialist and director of Monash’s Strategic Intelligence and Insights Unit, which answers directly to the university’s leadership team. “Every university will have multiple layers of analytics, but for a university to have a layer just targeting strategic questions, I found that to be very rare,” he told University World News.

Hassani-Mahmooei, who has a background in computations economics, heads a seven-member team, five of them with PhDs in subjects like econometrics, quantum physics and information systems.

“We have established frameworks for scenario modelling that look at historical data we’ve had at Monash internally and any other historical data that we’ve captured from external sources and we started to build equations of how these are related to each other,” he explained.

“With all our internal data, like admissions and publications data, we have activated it to understand how the world around us is changing and evolving, and how it’s going to impact us.”

Use of external data

But more unusual is the accumulation of external data, such as how student preferences are changing around the world in response to the geopolitical climate, and more recently the coronavirus pandemic, how universities collaborate with each other, what happens to graduates when they go back to their home country, and how academic talent and funding is shifting around the world.

“The model we built last year was looking into where Monash would land by 2030,” Hassani-Mahmooei said. “So we would look at the last five to 10 years of performance [indicators] and build all these equations and then come up with scenarios on where Monash would be in 10 years – how many students it would have, how many staff, how many papers it would be publishing. We have a whole set of financial indicators.”

But geopolitics as well as the COVID-19 pandemic requires more short-term modelling – and is based on many assumptions and geopolitical uncertainties. Nonetheless, he believes it is important to track such external events as an ‘early warning’.

“When China announces something, like a warning to its students, then those external indicators are going to be impacted first, before we see the impact internally on the university,” said Hassani-Mahmooei.

At Monash, 62% of its students are international students and just over 13% of the student body is from China – around 11,000 students, according to 2018 figures. A recent paper by Salvatore Babones, associate professor at the University of Sydney, estimated the revenue generated for Monash from Chinese student tuition fees at around AU$263.6 million (US$186.3 million) in 2018.

When China issued its warning in June, “we knew there had been another warning in February 2018 for Australia and we went back and looked into that. We quantified how much that contributed to declines in admission, and used statistical modelling to quantify the likely impact in 2020,” Hassani-Mahmooei explained.

A lot of external data is quantified, such as search patterns in China of prospective students and their families, particularly in reaction to different pieces of news or information, whether they search for an agent, or travel information. It is supplemented with information from people on the ground who deal with admissions, and agents in China. “All of this can help build a picture of how preferences are changing,” Hassani-Mahmooei said.

Pandemic predictions

The InSight team built sophisticated models to predict student enrolments during the pandemic, after borders were shut and many of its Chinese students were stuck in China.

“The challenge with COVID is there is no historical pattern as there was no pandemic before that, and it was unprecedented so that risk and fuzziness was there, but beyond that we had an opportunity to use these equations to relate all these issues together,” he said.

Reviewing the Monash InSight team’s predictions in May, after the end of enrolment for the second semester, they found their enrolment predictions across a wide group of measures were accurate in a range of 75% to 93%, Hassani-Mahmooei said.

He said 75% accuracy was for things like the number of students who tried to take semester leave or intermission, for which there was little data apart from some phone calls with students.

But the key is what university leaders do with the information, he said. “We bring in a lot of intelligence and qualitative information, so it’s not just numbers,” he said, noting that it helps with evidence-based decision-making. “When you do this properly it has a huge impact on decision-making. All these [graph] plots are shaped and structured to be able to track and communicate the information very quickly.”

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Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.

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University leaders need to step up geopolitical analysis – Sarraute Educación María Magdalena

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