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In this in-depth analysis of the lessons presented by the Covid-19 crisis for universities, EUA President Michael Murphy delves into the question of what universities might do differently now to grow impact and to ensure that the past is remembered and not relived by the next generation.

George Santayana’s aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to relive it” crossed my mind a lot in recent weeks. Our university historians knew that pandemics have been regular features of recorded human life and had no reason to doubt the inevitability of another; our microbiologists and virologists knew how it would emerge; our public health scientists had learned from both what constituted necessary public policies, logistical planning and resource stockpiling to prevent or mitigate it. Yet, here we are in May 2020 reliving history. Already, the known global death toll from Covid-19 is counted in hundreds of thousands but probably escalating to many millions, the global economy is in free fall and our exit path remains shrouded in uncertainty. Universities had the knowledge but not the influence to ensure that society used it in time or in sufficiency. Did it have to be this way? Is there something we in universities might do differently now to grow our impact, to ensure that the past is remembered and not relived by the next generation?  

All for one, one for all

Foremost in our relearning this year was the fact that events originating in any part of our planet can affect each of us – existentially, a timely reminder that nationalism is an anachronism. Just as there is no place to hide conveniently and permanently from Covid-19, there is equally no reliable shelter from climate change, resource depletion or the consequences of electing science deniers to key political leadership roles. The realisation that global challenges require global collective action was one inspiration for Europe’s universities to champion internationalisation in recent decades, exchanging students, enabling inter-researcher or inter-laboratory collaborations, organising or participating in international research conferences and, in many cases, establishing overseas campus branches. It also inspired the establishment of university associations drawing members from all continents, though none with more than a few hundred members, generally with niche agendae. But it is a remarkable fact that the foremost sector in society charged with the creation and transmission of knowledge, encompassing almost 250 million students, teachers and researchers worldwide, comprising some 24,000 institutions termed “universitas” (Latin for “the whole”, “total”, “universe”, “the world”) lacks a global forum, a platform to influence international policy or the global agenda. We need a place where the leadership of the university representative bodies of the major geopolitical regions can come together to agree policy recommendations to global society that are supported by the best evidence of academia.  

There are other compelling reasons to create a global university forum with a strong voice now, not least to combat growing strong barriers to international collaboration. Governments of several major countries prioritise national self-interest when collective action is most needed, abandon international organisations and obligations while erecting barriers against the flow of people, ideas and resources. Today, policy makers, especially in the United States but also in Europe, fan mistrust while those in China stifle academic freedom. As Ellen Hazelkorn wrote recently in University World News “there is no international forum that brings higher education together with government ministers, senior civil servants and organisations to discuss key issues of global concern and identify common solutions – thus, making multilateralism real”. For this to succeed, of course, we must first create an agreed higher education position.

Finally, ongoing evolution in the nature of the academic endeavour itself offers further drivers to such an initiative. Covid-19 will reduce student, researcher and teacher mobility for some years while direct interfacing with peers at conferences will be curtailed, all weakening our bonds. Meanwhile, there is the ever growing need for the global academy to embrace common standards and approaches in its own mission, to ensure research integrity, reliable peer review of research in an era of Open Science and Open Data and coordinated reform in methods to assess academic careers as examples. However, above all, universities need a vehicle to communicate research-based evidence and the lessons from history to those whose uninformed decisions can doom humanity to reliving it.

Strong Europe, Strong Universities – stronger global impact

While the pandemic has challenged virtually every citizen, it has also stressed the political fabric of Europe, uncovering the uncomfortable truth that our “common European identity” remains extremely fragile. Early faltering reactions of our political leaders - closing borders, banning the sale of ventilators or protective goods to fellow members of the EU, unedifying squabbles concerning financial help to those sorely challenged - were sobering. However, later instances of enlightened leadership (the Commission President von der Leyen hosting the global collective effort to support vaccine research, EU support to the World Health Organisation and the Macron-Merkel fiscal solidarity initiative) restored some confidence. Indeed they prompted Roger Cohen to opine in The New York Times that “The European Union, that entity with a stubborn heartbeat, has emerged better from the pandemic than China or the United States”, highlighting the responsibility now presented to us to sustain global functionality in the face of “President Xi Jinping’s tightening despotism and the dilapidation of American democracy”.  

To have impact in today’s world, scale matters and few sectors benefit more from European solidarity and cohesion than our universities. We have a duty to European society to celebrate loudly the value of borderless free movement of ideas, talent, labour, capital and other resources, as well as the urgent necessity to develop common, effective public health policies. But beyond words, Europe’s universities must press on with our own initiatives to give substance to the European Research and Education Areas, networking our universities to be resilient in the face of future global challenges. We will discourage concentration of resources in a small number of elitist institutions (the US and Chinese model), instead embracing the concept of distributed excellence with opportunity for all regions, but recognising that success will be predicated on really effective collaboration. Only deeper collaboration among our European universities, deeper knowing, will bind us sufficiently tightly to give us the collective scale and capacity to contribute effectively to solving global challenges. Europe will only be as strong as its universities. It is imperative that we now move to construct a “System of European Universities”, signalled in the Bologna Declaration 21 years ago, as a fundamental pillar of our common European identity.  

Society’s resilience will also require stronger research performance in Europe. Today we chronicle and take pride in the contributions made by our universities in response to Covid-19 – by epidemiologists, public health experts, virologists, social scientists among many – but we must equally highlight to our fellow citizens that, while there is much to discover, Europe’s research efforts continue to be hampered by underinvestment compared with many global peers. At a time when the value of research has rarely been so clear to a society fascinated by the search for a vaccine, we must build an alliance with fellow citizens to persuade governments that the costs of Covid-19 pale in comparison with the likely consequences of global warming and will be combated only through research into new sources of energy, materials, foods and changed human behaviours. We must not waste the crisis.

Change “within our walls”

Universities have been transformed in 2020. Just two weeks in mid-March saw changes in our entire teaching and examining framework that would normally have taken 10 years. While much will be reversed of course (laboratory practicals, clinical practical experience and research require onsite presence), it is clear that online learning, blended learning will be a permanent part of the student experience. The pandemic cloud may have other silver linings, not least increased support for research investment among a public longing for a vaccine, fascinated by the flattening of epidemiological curves, and armchair adjudicators of the tussles between scientists and populist politicians. We must exploit the momentum for change. Can we say that we have really educated young people who leave our institutions expert perhaps in software coding but having never heard of a pandemic? Or graduates who seek political leadership unencumbered by an ethical or moral framework, or more often vote for such people? Or alumni who have not been challenged to reflect on their personal potential contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals? Perhaps it is time for our institutions to revisit what constitutes a European university education, creating an enduring legacy of this particular pandemic. Above all, we need to do a much better job at ensuring that our students remember history so that they and their children do not relive it.


This article was published by Newstank in French on 5 June 2020.


Michael Murphy
European University Association

Michael Murphy is the European University Association President. He has served as President of University College Cork, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Chair of the Health Research Board of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Universities Association. President Murphy has also served on the EUA Board and is Chair of the EUA Learning & Teaching Steering Committee.

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