Vice President International Blog

Professor Becky Whay, Vice President International

 A warm welcome from this, my new Vice President International blog space. This space provides an opportunity to share news with you about University of Galway’s ‘Global Journey’ and to think about, discuss and debate why internationalisation is so important for us as a university.

An Introduction to my Global Journey 

I am very fortunate to have had my own Global Journey that eventually brought me to University of Galway. I was a slow starter though, as I wasn’t lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to travel or study abroad as an undergraduate student. In fact, I was 25 when I first set foot on a plane. It was a trip to a conference in Vancouver, Canada and involved broken down aircraft, massively delayed flights, no vegetarian food (as usual) and general exhaustion. It was a disheartening journey but then suddenly, none of that mattered because there I was in Canada, meeting new people, soaking up amazing sights, sounds and smells, and giving my first ever research poster presentation.  After my first tentative step, my own global odyssey really took off when I began working, over a period of 17 years, on my own research projects in the Global South.  I looked at working animal welfare in the context of very poor families, often dependant on a single donkey, horse, mule, ox, or camel for their income. It raised questions for me about whether an animal’s welfare can matter in the face of desperate human poverty and suffering. Indeed, it challenged my research skills and objectivity. I hope I learnt humility, and at times, it completely broke my heart.

The reason for the reminiscence is that above all else, my own travels around the world, working in, living in, admiring, and at times feeling immensely frustrated by, a huge diversity of cultures, languages, environments and behaviours, has been a continual education for me; developing  skills, broadening perspectives and laying the foundations for my current job. It is also why I truly believe that University of Galway’s ambition to continue its own journey to becoming a Global University is important for every single one of us; students, staff and the communities around us alike.

This is what The Global Galway Project is all about. This is our vison and structure for supporting our ongoing institutional journey, which will take us further out into the world through our actions and reputation and make sure we are the flourishing, welcoming place where people from close by and far away want to be to study and work. Internationalisation is a relatively new concept in Higher Education, and its purpose is to support and enhance the educational and research missions of Universities. Internationalisation for its own sake isn’t the goal.  Our vision, through The Global Galway Project is:

“To create a more globally diverse, and culturally rich, learning and working experience. A place where everyone has a sense of belonging. Where we welcome the world in and go out into the world. Where we nurture global citizens. Where everyone has a place to thrive.”

At its best, internationalisation enriches our teaching and learning, enhances the employability and skills of our students and staff and teaches us all tolerance and understanding when it has never been needed more. Being globally connected opens up research and research funding opportunities and broadens our research horizons at a time when we face unprecedented global challenges. We won’t find solutions alone; collaborative, multidisciplinary and multinational research and teaching initiatives are essential. The Global Galway Project is all about creating the environment and structures which can enable this.

 A great example of collaboration in action is ENLIGHT, the European University Network (EUN) in which we are a partner. ENLIGHT is the embodiment of the European Union’s vision that Universities across the union can work together to widen opportunities for students and staff, to collaborate in building future models of Higher Education and to become hubs which bring together researchers to address complex, multidisciplinary challenges, such as global sustainability, that we all face.  ENLIGHT is a network of nine universities spread across all points of the European compass. Between us we share 11 languages, over 350,000 students and serve a community of over 5.5 million people across our regions. We also clock up an impressive amount of time on Zoom. Flippancy aside, I see ENLIGHT as a great example of an international partnership where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Our shared knowledge, vision and energy are extraordinary and really exemplify what is at the heart of The Global Galway Project. Our future is Global.

The Power of Diversity, Tolerance and Debate

“I am convinced that we need to keep academic cooperation between our countries. We need to educate our students, our young generation, in the spirit of European values.” 

This is a line written in an email to an University of Galway staff member from an academic colleague based in a University in Russia. It struck me as encapsulating the profoundly important and unique role Higher Education has in shaping the future of the World.  Sometimes it feels like hyperbole to claim Universities are critical to the future of the World, but as the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolds in front of us, it is in fact a profoundly powerful concept – which matters at a time when most of us are feeling powerless beyond our words of condemnation of the Russian government.

I frequently speak about the benefits of internationalisation, the enrichment it brings to our learning environment, the opportunities for skills development for both students and staff and the reputational benefits to our University, but this week has brought the need to be in partnership across the World into much sharper focus.

Being a global university gives all of us the opportunity to develop our skills of tolerance and open-mindedness and to be in a haven where learning, thinking and debate are encouraged and valued.  It also creates the potential to bridge cultural gaps in ways that may be difficult for people in other contexts.  

Simon Harris TD, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science issued a statement on Feb 28th. In condemning the invasion of Ukraine he said: “We remain conscious, however, that the actions of the Russian state are no reflection on its people, and we are determined that Russian and Ukrainian students studying in Ireland and the EU, as well as Irish students studying at third level institutions in Russia and Ukraine, will be given our support in these difficult times.”

We are very clear that at University of Galway all our students and staff are exactly that, our students and our staff, regardless of their nationality and the actions of their governments, and our primary interest is to support everyone to flourish in an environment that values them as individuals and not actors of their own state.

While the brutal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine brings this to the forefront of our minds, it exemplifies a wider discussion we continually have about how to engage with countries and states that we view as out of alignment with our cultural values, and which in some cases are believed to compromise the human rights of their citizens. 

In a place of debate and academic thinking which values freedom, there are, of course, many perspectives all of which are of equal worth in a democratic space.  There is a compelling argument that we should open ourselves up and welcome in students and staff from absolutely everywhere in the World. Both make an active choice about where they study and work and choosing to situate themselves with us in Ireland recognises that they themselves are engaging with the possibilities of learning about our culture, political landscape (and climate!). I think it would diminish us to consider closing our doors to students or staff as a means of making ethical or political statements to their governments.

However, as a University the ways we engage globally are diverse. Open collaboration and discourse are fundamental to who we are and clearly, while we may be distracted by conflict at the moment, the existential threats of climate change and unsustainable ways of living are global challenges that require global solutions.  Finding ourselves in a position where we have to consider our global alliances based on political landscape rather than the imperatives of research is uncomfortable, but it is an ethical reality of life.

A 2020 report from an Executive Group from a German Rector’s (University President’s) Conference on this issue recognised the tensions that exist for Universities in their approach to global engagements, in this case the discussion was particularly focussed on establishing and maintaining academic partnerships with China. They noted that “In the sphere of tension between opportunities and risks, it is important to proactively identify realms of possibility, without jeopardising one’s own values and standards in the process.”

For me, the point I am clear on is that taking a values based approach to our global engagements is critical. We have a strong set of institutional values that articulate openness, respect, excellence and sustainability.  As we mature, our approach to institutional engagement, we must interrogate our global relationships through these four lenses and remain steadfast in our values.

To end, I want to return to the message that opened my blog. While this remains a complex ethical space, it is poignant that I have quoted the words of a Russian academic colleague. We are uniquely placed to shape the future through values-led education and engagements. Through learning to be understanding and tolerant in our global interactions we can hope that we see peace in the generations to come.

 My thoughts are with everyone caught up in the invasion of Ukraine which I absolutely condemn.

A Rounded and Complete University

I’ve been enjoying increased opportunities to eat chocolate lately. As the new academic year has started and I am moving about our University of Galway city campus a lot more, my path almost invariably takes me via the Student Union shop which stocks some of my favourite vegan chocolate wrapped hazelnut treats…..and as we all know because the chocolate has nuts inside, it is clearly a healthy food option!!! 

This morning, long before I got my chocolate fix, I read a news article detailing the current drought and associated food crisis in Somalia. Somalia has suffered multiple consecutive failed rainy seasons and is facing a famine that is disproportionately affecting young children. Earlier this year it was estimated that 1.4 million children were severely malnourished and child mortality rates due to starvation are already unimaginably and tragically high. Famine has not yet been officially acknowledged-perhaps because it takes us too long to recognise the scale of an emerging problem or perhaps because we wait until we hit crisis point before humanitarian aid can be ramped up to have the level of impact desperately needed. 

You don’t need to be a psychologist to find a connection here. On the one hand, I am able to indulge my love of chocolate by buying an easily accessible treat, making my choice from a range of available options, which I can comfortably afford to buy. While in many parts of the world, people are dying because they cannot access the most basic life-sustaining food and water. This is clearly a food distribution and wealth equity problem but it is also way more than that. It has to do with geopolitics, impacts of climate change, the lasting effects of wars, national infrastructures and resources, and of course, unequal distribution of wealth within and between countries. 

Most of us to want to see things change—a levelling and equality of access globally—and, in theory, would be willing to accept some reduction in our own quality of life to ensure others in need get greater support. Anyone with the most basic capacity for empathy and compassion will want to help to see this gap closed. However, when the rubber hits the road and we ourselves are subject to inflationary pressures, rising prices and potential power shortages, the risk that we become more protectionist and self-focussed puts this theoretical position to a more searching test. 

Global food security, or lack of it, is just one example of a deeply complex problem, frequently described as a wicked problem. Wicked problems are often seen as impossible to fix, but clearly we must not shrug and walk away from them, when the outcome is immense suffering and tragedy, as my Somalia example, sadly just one of many, illustrates. 

Universities have a critical role in finding solutions to wicked problems. These challenges require innovative and inter-disciplinary research to synergise into more creative, effective and impactful outputs. Universities also serve to educate the next generation of leaders, problem solvers and implementers willing to make a difference to the future. Unfortunately, there can be disciplinary, funding, structural and political barriers to universities achieving their potential in this arena. To meet this head on, University of Galway is positioning itself to continue growing as a Global University. Wicked problems aren’t solved by looking inwards, they are addressed by building connections, bringing together new thinking and harnessing minds and resources across international boundaries. 

What is a Global University? It sounds good but is it a concept that has substance, and will it make a difference to how we do education and research? I think of a Global University as an institution that is connected into, and able to fully value and utilize its global connectivity. Being a Global University is as much about what happens within our campuses as how we interconnect with the rest of the world. A Global University must have a staff and student community that reflects the diversity of the world around it. We are situated in the most multicultural city in Ireland and we need to both reflect and enhance the diversity of our own region. 

A research intensive Global University also has to address global issues through its connections, partnerships and collaborations in order to deliver important and world changing, impactful research. Global research collaborations must produce research outputs that couldn’t be achieved by universities alone as single entities. In essence, global research allows all of us to be greater than the sum of our parts. Additionally, globally collaborative research drives high quality research and impactful research. Eilís FerranPro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations, University of Cambridge, wrote that World class research is a global project” 1 and I couldn’t agree more and would extend this to say that being a world class university is a global project. 

A Global University is also about who and how we educate. Welcoming and celebrating diversity in our class rooms is a good starting place but is not nearly enough. We often flag the importance of educating our students and staff to be global citizens and ensuring our graduates are ready for employment anywhere in the world. These are both critically important activities. As a Global University we need to go further and embrace the decolonisation of our curriculum and to see this as a vehicle for creating a new kind of global leader for the future. 

My interpretation of being a genuinely Global University is essentially all encompassing and existentially important for our future, not just for us, for all universities looking to fulfil their potential and meet the changing needs of the world around them. The idea of being globally engaged and connected has to pervade our approach to everything we do. The word Global does not only mean this amazing landmass we live on, it also coveys the sense of being rounded and complete. We have to be a Global University to be a fully rounded and whole University so that we can fulfil our potential and serve the global society around us.