Schools Try To Muster Support For A Return To International Mobility

Pupils and faculty at universities are often highly mobile, jetting around the world to spread ideas, keep up to date with best practice and simply experience the way things are done elsewhere. In some circles, this way of life is unpopular. The Covid-19 crisis has ushered in travel-bans and quarantines, making international travel harder. But even before the current virus-induced drop in cross-border travel, protectionists and populists in many countries were looking askance at polyglot, globetrotting “citizens of nowhere.” Results include a tightening of the U.S. visa regime and the U.K. pulling out of the EU free movement system. Globally, unfriendliness towards foreigners – and especially liberal ones – is on the rise.

Now universities are fighting back. Led by Madrid’s IE Business School, a group of 28 universities and schools including Harvard and Yale from the U.S., France’s Sciences Po, Kings College London, and Singapore Management University as well as others from Japan, and several Latin American countries have signed a joint statement entitled “Mobility in Higher Education as a Catalyst for Resilience and Renewal”. The declaration argues that mobility has always been fundamental to universities. In the 13th century, the declaration points out, Europe’s oldest university in Bologna adopted the Constitutio Habita, an academic charter that ensured and protected the rights and free movement of a traveling scholar in the pursuit of education – the forerunner of today’s concept of academic freedom. Today, mobility is just as necessary for universities, argues the declaration, and should be fiercely promoted.  

The project is the brainchild of IE University President Santiago Iñiguez, who had been named by Poets&QuantsDean of the Year in 2016 when he ran IE’s business school. “International mobility is key in order to provide students not just with the best possible education, but also to expose them to different values and visions of the world,” he explains. “And of course to foster principles which are basic to our global like systems like sustainability, inclusion, respect for diversity and related values. One of my favorite quotes is from John Henry Newman, an Oxford academic from the 19th century, who defined universities as ‘the assemblage of strangers of all parts in one spot.’ That’s a fantastic definition.” 


Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University in Spain

Fine words, but what are the group’s concrete aims? A practical, short-term goal is to create travel bridges between universities, to ensure mobility continues during these coronavirus-plagued times. “We know that there’s now this discussion going on at the European Union about whether to ban the entry of U.S. students and maybe students also coming from Latin American countries, given the spread of contagion in that region,” says Iñiguez.

“Of course, this is understandable, but at the same time at universities, across the board are all implementing very strict protocols in order to keep our campuses safe, so I think we can actually make an exception and provide a safe bridge for those students coming from overseas from other regions. That way we can facilitate this very, very much needed cross-border movement while respecting all the necessary protocols and safety measures. This is just a very practical example of how we can actually facilitate international mobility at this time when governments are over-reacting or falling short,” adds Iñiguez. 

While this is an example of an immediate project, there is a broader picture. Mobility facilitates the spread and exchange of ideas and broadens the mind. As such it is part of a broader constellation of ideas that underpin open societies, such as tolerance, open-mindedness and free-speech. Leaders in some countries have been lukewarm at best in championing these ideas. “I guess it has come the time to speak more loudly and try to influence not just governments but the rest of society,” says Iñiguez. “Over the past few years, we have reacted late. In the Brexit debate, universities only mobilized themselves and spoke up in the final weeks before the referendum.” 


Universities have been worried about being accused of being elites, or in ivory towers, which discourages them from speaking up, thinks Iñiguez. “We should play our role in talking loudly about the basic principles that should be observed and respected in Western democracies such as respect for free speech, but also preserving what is true and combating fake news,” he adds. “Scholars want to improve the world, and good ideas prevail in the long term.”

Universities and colleges, explains Iniguez, are pretty robust institutions, often with a lot of history and cultural clout. They are therefore powerful institutions that are well-placed to make the case for a sustainable, integrated, inclusive, diverse world where talented people are free to move to where they are needed. And proponents of this outlook ought to fight back against the populist zeitgeist. Can universities save the world? They are certainly going to try.  



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