Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
“Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”….
Robert Frost, Mending Wall
This strange winter saw national borders being re-erected in record speed and for good reason, fighting an enemy that we couldn’t see, but that has had nonetheless devastating effects and implications for our health and way of life. Immediate and, most likely, for years to come. These past months have amply demonstrated how much we in this part of the world and in academic tribes and territories that we house within UiO have taken for granted the borderlessness of our daily activities and how globally interwoven we are as a European research intensive comprehensive university with connections all over the globe. The ease with which we travel has been taken away. Verging on the cliché, our academic way of life is at its core inherently borderless. As so often in most walks of life: You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Freedom of movement is necessary to hold on to the practices of a borderless universal academe.
Our staff and visiting scholars have felt the effects of having to disrupt their sabbaticals. Students have abruptly ended their exchange stays. For this student group the uncertainty of being away from their home country - “should I stay or should I go” – is taking an extra toll. Also many of UiO’s international students are returning to their home country. Those who choose to stay are running the risk of long-term separation from family and friends, from the people they love. For those with no other alternative than to stay, because borders are closed and they have nowhere to go, the consequences of the covid-19 crisis are being felt with amplified force. We all feel the looming pressure of uncertainty. Yet, international students are likely to be even more vulnerable when it comes to the material living conditions and mental health effects from the virus-crisis.
Long-term effects are surfacing fast. Reports are ticking in, even from the most prestigious universities, that for study programmes the number of applicants with non-domestic nationalities has plummeted. An obvious explanation is the grueling uncertainty of how long it takes before national restrictions and borders can be lifted stone by stone.
Then again, something there is that does not love a wall. For certain, we cannot rely on the forces of nature to make cracks in national borders. The virus needs to be handled and walled in, for our academic activities there are few good reasons to take refuge behind the boulders of national borders. National confinement does not become the research-intensive university. Rather the opposite - we need to find ways to stimulate borderless interaction, and explore the pre-, per- and post-covid-19 world. We need for the time being also to work with and around the obstacles that limit knowledge circulation.
One side effect of the covid-19 shock is the total digital makeover of our study programmes conducted in record time and with maximum collective effort. A large majority of our study offers have been converted to a digital format. PhD defenses are going digital. Researchers’ interactions are “zoomed”. This is a kind of frost heave that has opened up new channels for doing what academia is best at: sharing, collaborating and competing for pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Knowledge can develop and travel regardless of strength of physical borders. Short-term emergency solutions have given us opportunities for maintaining and developing further transnational classrooms and the invaluable participation of international colleagues in the academic communities’ doctoral rite de passage. The cultural, structural and practical walls that have in the recent past hampered the digital transformation of teaching, colloquiums, assignments, exams, seminars, conferences - are now being perforated. The crisis was a painful tipping point for alternative ways of organising encounters between colleagues, students and staff.
Fortunately, we have had programmes and courses with strong track records in experimenting with new “green” forms of internationalisation, such as the transborder virtual classroom. Valuable experience has been gained in how to use digital technologies for replacing physical mobility by virtual collaboration. One of our pioneers is Professor Dan Banik. He has organized encounters in virtual space for many years on what works in development. He has recently updated his MOOC where you can meet the thoughts and insights on development straight from the source – Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama and core actors from the world of practice such as Gro Harlem Brundtland. Dan’s MOOC is transnational, both in terms of content and form. Participating in this MOOC you are unencumbered by borders - the MOOC is not even protected by a pay wall.
While governments across the globe are protecting the health and welfare of citizens by rebuilding national borders, governments are at the same time announcing policies and programmes to support transnational cooperation in higher education. Not too long ago NORAD announced that its NORHED II programme is scheduled to channel one billion NOK to North-South collaboration in research and higher education. Moreover, government policy on mobility in higher education is, somewhat paradoxically, tabled for this spring.
This troubled semester we are preparing for embarking on one of the most ambitious transborder initiatives UiO has ever been involved in - we are teaming up with sister universities in Aarhus, Louvain, Berlin, Belgrade, London and Paris as Circle U – a European University Alliance – challenging national regulatory obstacles to joining academic forces.
“Good fences make good neighbours” – this is the contested counterpoint in the poem Mending Walls. Closed borders might be a necessary precaution to deal with a travelling virus. But in the academic realm transborder interaction is part of the solution, not the problem – short term and long term. We see that in the collaborative and competitive race for finding a vaccine. A university without close interaction and teams of researchers cooperating and competing for excellence and problem solving across borders, is less of a University. So is a campus without international students. There are good reasons for not loving a wall.
God Påske - let us hope for a better spring!