UL Provost and Deputy President Professor Nigel Healey discusses the need to rethink global engagement post COVID-19 

Starting a new job in the middle of a global pandemic is something that not many will have prepared for. However the new Interim Provost and Deputy President/Vice President Global and Community Engagement, Professor Nigel Healey did just that and he spoke to UL Links about his tenure to date and the challenges facing global engagement. 

Having returned to Europe after nearly four years of working in the South Pacific at Fiji National University, Professor Healey joined the University of Limerick as Associate Vice President Global Engagement in April 2020.  

Landing in Heathrow just as Ireland went into lockdown, Professor Healey said that he knew he was facing in to a challenging time, but one where he is “passionate about the power of global engagement and partnership as it would help to transform the impact and quality of university teaching and research and I was looking forward to the challenges ahead at UL.

During my career, I have seen how international student mobility has rebooted the life chances of those who take part, especially those who had little exposure to cultural and ethnic diversity prior to coming to university

"A few years ago, for example, I negotiated an arrangement at a UK university, under which students from low-income backgrounds were able to spend three weeks on a scholarship at a summer school at a famous Chinese university,” he explains.

“I met the students for a final dinner in Chengdu the night before the summer school ended and was astonished to find all 30 planned to remain in China for several weeks and travel around the country with their Chinese 'student buddies'.  

“At the pre-departure briefing before they left the UK, they had been nervous and even scared of the adventure ahead.  Three weeks later, they were confident and excited about the prospect of learning more about China, possibly even working in Beijing or Shanghai.”

Professor Healey asserts that one of the most important graduate attributes universities develop in their students is “critical thinking” – namely the ability to think independently, imagine different ways of doing and being, and challenge orthodoxy.  

“Years ago, I realised that international mobility is one of the more powerful ways of instilling critical thinking.  A colleague once described international mobility as “ontological shock”, because it forces students to question everything they previously took for granted about the way the world works.

I recall, as a young lecturer, going to work at a university in Lithuania in the dying days of the Soviet Union

"The staff canteen closed between 12:00 and 13:00 because 'this is when the catering staff have their lunch'. 

“Buying goods in stores required first queuing to find out if there was, say, any bread and how much a loaf cost, then queuing to pay the cashier who gave you a receipt, then queueing again at the bread counter to exchange the receipt for the loaf of bread.  

“It took ages to grocery shop, but 'everyone had a job'.  

“I could not turn off the heating in my apartment, because the hot water was made in a combined heat and power station and piped from several kilometres away.  The price of heating and electricity was fixed at a few roubles a month.  It was inefficient from an economic point of view, but 'no-one ever went cold'.

“I remember these early experiences vividly, 30 years later, because I experienced them first-hand and they rocked my belief in how societies should be organised and what they should prioritise. So, during the COVID-19 crisis, with the constraints it has imposed on international mobility, like champions of internationalisation everywhere I have been thinking hard about how we should rebuild our global engagement when the pandemic is passed.

“In the years since 1991, when I was living in my overheated staff apartment in Lithuania, the world has changed and the climate crisis is now widely acknowledged as the major threat to our way of life.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has proved, after years of governmental handwringing and inaction, that if the circumstances demand radical measures, we can dramatically curtail travel and energy consumption overnight. 

It follows that, as we reopen business and society, we rethink what travel and energy consumption is actually essential to our future lives and what savings we can permanently bank

Professor Healey argues that despite the advances in virtual connectivity highlighted by the pandemic, international student mobility is one of the essential activities that should be prioritised.  

“There is no way to recreate that ontological shock, break down cultural barriers and foster global citizenship without students living and working in different countries.  However, it does mean that, to justify the carbon footprint of this activity, the mobility must be deep and meaningful.  

“We all know of short-term student mobility that amounts to little more than academic tourism, with groups of students from the same country trudging around museums and complaining the food is not as good as it is at home.  We need to commit to making international mobility authentic and inclusive.

“On the other hand, we should admit that part of the carbon footprint that universities left on the planet in the cause of global engagement needs to be rethought.  

“As someone who has been involved in international university cooperation for over 20 years, I can recall flying halfway around the world to attend meetings and events that lasted a few hours.  In the last year, for example, I flew from Fiji to London to attend a one-day meeting, getting back to Fiji before the jetlag had caught up with me.  When the same organisation called a meeting two months later in Canberra, I asked if I could attend by videoconference to avoid a long roundtrip and I was told that the host university did not have any suitable facilities.

“One of the lasting benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we have learned that face-to-face meetings can be replaced – not perfectly, but adequately – by virtual conferencing and the savings of travel time and damage to the environment make any marginal disadvantages well worth it.   

“My vision for global engagement post COVID-19 is that we should regard international travel as a precious commodity, to be used sparingly and only when absolutely essential to achieve the university’s goals

“A few days ago, one of my close colleagues, Dr Janet Ilieva of Education Insight, launched a new Global Engagement Index (see www.educationinsight.uk/gei) to measure the global engagement of universities.  Interestingly, she compiled this index not just by using the conventional measures of internationalisation – the percentage of international staff and students, the amount of internationally co-authored research – but also by the extent to which the university limits its environmental impact on the planet, not least by reducing its “Staff Air Travel Carbon Footprint per Student”.  Thank you, Janet – it seems I am not alone in re-envisioning the future of global engagement,” Professor Healy concludes.  
-  Andrew Carey

Prior to his appointment at the University of Limerick, Professor Healey held senior academic positions at Fiji National University, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) and Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as teaching positions at the University of Leicester and Leeds Beckett University.  He has been a visiting professor at various universities in Belarus, China, Poland, and the United States.
His current research interests are in the internationalization of higher education, transnational education and higher education policy and management. He has served as an economic policy advisor to the prime minister of Belarus and the deputy minister of economy of the Russian Federation and managed a number of multinational research and economic development projects in different parts of the world. He is chair of the QS-APPLE academic conference committee and, until recently, a member of the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). He is a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and the New Zealand Institute of Management and Leadership and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (Advance HE).