Over the past 16 months, higher education has been tested by a once-in-a-century global health pandemic which has brought access and mobility challenges that have required us to find global solutions. But COVID-19 has only added to a long list of severely disruptive global challenges, like climate change, social inequality and the threat to international collaboration and exchange.
Through this test, we now understand the effort needed to overcome threats of this magnitude and we have proven that even closer collaboration will be needed to overcome future challenges. Like many other university presidents, I have begun thinking of ways in which the institution I lead can harness its unique placement, its institutional character and its resources to take action.
Let’s start by exploring the current dynamic of higher education from the point of view of its three main missions: that universities should remain steadfast in cultivating their values and identity; that universities should remain connected to each other; and that universities should remain focused on the future.
Values and identity
In Greek philosophy, Socrates proposed the ‘care of the soul’ and cultivation of virtues as the most important human obligations. Similarly, the Chinese philosopher Mencius was known to have said (as translated): “To reach greatness or a state of leadership requires a pure heart-mind”.
The same can be said of universities’ faithful commitment to the cultivation of their core values and identity. This allows universities to stay true to their unique strengths and use these advantages for the benefit of all.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the unique strengths of Tsinghua University were on full display. Tsinghua immediately responded with proactive measures to cope with the outbreak, while remaining true to its commitment to educational excellence.
Through technologies that enable real-time, interactive and remote online teaching, Tsinghua launched a fully-supported online learning environment in two weeks and started the spring term with an online lecture that drew 57,000 Tsinghua students, faculty, staff and alumni.
The university delivered more than 3,900 spring term courses without losing one day of instruction, marking the beginning of a profound transformation in teaching methodology.
From then until now, Tsinghua students and faculty have been actively supporting the fight against the coronavirus. They are researching cures, they continue to join the front lines around the world and they are volunteering. Our subsidiaries and start-ups also contribute to the fight, while our broad network of alumni help in many ways.
Tsinghua, like universities around the world, embodies a spirit of cooperation and service and bravely takes on responsibility.
Throughout the pandemic, universities continued to inspire through their unwavering commitment to education, research and community service.
In particular, universities have a vital role to play in vaccine development, contributing to the unprecedented efforts to inoculate the entire world population. Research efforts, real-time pandemic monitoring and information-sharing have contributed to the hope that humanity will soon overcome this health crisis.
The second mission is for universities to remain connected. In 2016, Tsinghua University initiated the first global strategy in its history. We aimed to deepen our engagement with the world and to cultivate innovative talents who possess global competence.
Together with our global partners, we established a range of collaborative initiatives: The Global Innovation Exchange institute in Seattle, USA; the China-Italy Design Innovation Hub in Milan, Italy; the Tsinghua Southeast Asia Centre in Bali, Indonesia; and Tsinghua’s Latin America Center in Santiago, Chile.
We have witnessed the growing importance of university networks as well as collaborative initiatives with international organisations. As COVID-19 gained momentum in the first half of 2020, Tsinghua harnessed its international ties to support students, provide emergency assistance and advance commonly held best practice.
In April 2020, Tsinghua and UNESCO jointly initiated a special dialogue and explored the challenges of online education during the pandemic as well as announcing greater global accessibility to Tsinghua’s online educational resources.
To help mitigate the impact on students in the most severely affected areas of China, Tsinghua expanded its social engagement by offering more than 1,900 courses to the public.
The university also provided ‘clone classes’ to universities in stricken areas of Hubei province and other regions throughout China. To minimise disruption to graduating students, the university extended its resources and partnerships to more than 100 universities in Hubei and organised a number of online recruitment sessions.
The desire to look outward and stay connected to others who needed support was embodied by volunteer groups such as Tsinghua’s Postgraduate Voluntary Teaching Corps. Despite the extraordinary challenges during the pandemic, they continued decades of service in rural and remote environments to provide education and contribute to national poverty alleviation efforts in places where people need us most.
Similarly, universities are leading the charge to solve the problems presented by climate change. In May 2019, the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate was officially launched at Tsinghua University. The alliance facilitates greater levels of collaboration on climate issues, greater engagement with climate stakeholders and the worldwide promotion of environmental practices advanced by universities.
We are proud of these collaborative achievements, and how they demonstrate our future leadership in the fields of public health, climate change and online education.
The third mission is for universities to remain focused on the future by embracing innovation. Human civilisation aspires to the ideals and values that universities embody. Universities inherit knowledge and culture and cultivate future talent through borderless collaboration with governments, enterprises and international organisations.
Despite the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, technology has offered credible solutions for an unprecedented problem. Online tools and advanced technologies have propelled the development of teaching and learning. These developments have the potential to address the problem of inequality in education. At the time of the crisis, I said that “screens are not barriers for interactions, but new bridges between faculty and students”.
Acting on this principle, I was proud to co-launch the Global MOOC Alliance last December. This network of universities and online education platforms facilitate international cooperation and exchanges in educational technologies. Its members are implementing online education standards across the world.
I am confident that the network will make a significant contribution towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4: to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. These initiatives have underscored universities’ common commitment to serve society and address the urgent challenges faced by humanity.
Looking to the future, universities need to become more open, integrated and resilient.
Universities need to promote inclusive environments to address the challenges of this new era. University openness contributes to national development, well-being and the progress of human civilisation.
‘Openness’ means promoting values that are compassionate, inclusive and equitable. ‘Openness’ is about greater understanding and overcoming anxiety and uncertainty. Greater openness expands students’ understanding of the world and supports the promotion of global and leadership competencies. Universities that are more open are better committed to collaborative programmes and research that advance human knowledge and cultural understanding.
Universities also need to break out of their physical boundaries, disciplinary barriers and technological limitations to make greater contributions to society. “A more integrated university” is about meeting the diverse learning needs of different groups. It is about providing innovative solutions from interdisciplinary perspectives and strengthening cross-sector engagement with societies, governments, international organisations and industries.
It is my hope that university education will achieve a more in-depth and more natural form of integration: in class and after class, on and off campus, in domestic and foreign settings, and online and offline. Universities that are more open and integrated will be able to take on greater responsibilities.
Lastly, universities need to demonstrate their resilience by continuing to thrive despite being among the oldest institutions in existence. Being ‘more resilient’ is about being able to adapt to change, to anticipate need and to demonstrate leadership that inspires. When crises hit, our resilience enables us to rise to meet the challenges and to transform them into opportunities to grow and learn.
I am convinced that universities have a unique role to play in tackling global challenges and will make humanity better prepared for future crises, by creating knowledge, striving for innovation and cultivating leaders and change-makers.
Professor Qiu Yong is president of Tsinghua University, China. This is an edited version of his speech to the Global Forum of University Presidents 2021 last weekend, held to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Tsinghua University. It followed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tsinghua on 19 April.