KU Leuven: Internationalize with travel restrictions: “Continuously skipping between the benefits and the risks”

In recent years, a lot of work has been done to make KU Leuven more famous abroad. Then came corona. What about the university’s international ambitions one year later? Can you still network if you can’t travel? And are there any exchanges? Peter Lievens, Vice Rector for Internationalization, takes stock of the situation.

It goes without saying that the corona crisis has had a major impact on international exchanges to and from KU Leuven. In recent years, the International Office has focused strongly on mobility for everyone, and suddenly everything came to a standstill a year ago. “That has indeed been difficult,” said Lievens. “Many exchanges have been postponed or canceled, and we have had to recall students. International exchange students have also had to go home. Nevertheless, many exchanges have continued. But then the second wave came. ”

All forms of internationalization aim to increase the quality of education.

“We had to constantly compromise between the added value of an international exchange and its risks: for the health of the students, but also to keep the pandemic under control.”

It is expected that international exchanges can continue as usual next academic year. “This is how we are prepared. At the same time, we are also working on scenarios where that would not be the case. ”

In addition to corona, there is another jammer in the student exchanges: Brexit. “Unfortunately, the United Kingdom left the Erasmus program. After the next academic year, there will be no more funding to organize mobility to the UK. So we have to conclude new agreements with British universities, both at faculty and university level. ”

The next question is whether the university can still give scholarships to students going to the UK. “We are now discussing this option with the Flemish Government and are in close contact with our main partner universities,” says Lievens. “Fortunately, our research partnerships will remain afloat as the UK remains a partner of Horizon Europe, the European research funding program for the next six years. Otherwise it would have been disastrous. ”

In addition to exchange students, there are also many international students who want to obtain their diploma at KU Leuven. Despite the crisis, their numbers have increased again this year. As a result, our university currently has more international students than ever before.

“Applications to come and study at our university from abroad have already increased enormously for next year,” says Lievens. “We are now at an increase of seventy percent compared to 2018, thirty percent more than the previous academic year.”

To avoid shortages on the koten market in our campus cities, new investments are necessary. The university has already appointed a project leader to research the market and broaden the range.

Meet online
Normally Vice Rector Lievens travels a lot. From about thirty international journeys per year as an employee, it suddenly went to zero. “This includes visits to universities, larger missions, meetings of the networks we are part of and a few more research conferences. Our last mission was to Australia , just before corona broke out in Belgium. ”

Now everything is done online. “As a result, we often have contact with international networks, for example. We will probably also meet less physically after corona. Ultimately, that is a good evolution: travel is time-consuming and as a university we are trying to reduce the number of flights for sustainability reasons. Nevertheless, personal contact remains important, as does the opportunity to visit a campus and soak up the local culture. ”

Other continents
“It is much more difficult to set up new projects online. We managed to do that with the Global Exchange Program , in which we made agreements about student exchanges with Australian, Canadian and Asian universities. With priority partners such as the universities of Melbourne and Beijing, we have set up the Global PhD Program to jointly fund PhDs. ”

In both cases, these are talks that were ongoing before the crisis broke out. The pandemic made the team even more committed to the regional committees. They consist of researchers and employees with an affinity for the region in question. They advise policy, for example on how best to reach future students or employees in the region. “There is now a new committee for East and Central Africa in the pipeline,” explains Lievens. “The intention is to better coordinate existing initiatives there. In this way we want to build a stronger bond with the local community. That is why there will also be a new alumni chapter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in addition to the existing one in Ethiopia. ”

The university of the future
The international networks of which KU Leuven is a member have not been idle. Lievens: “A year and a half ago we became a member of Universitas 21 , a network of research universities from all over the world. In addition to opportunities for new partnerships, Universitas offers 21 interesting initiatives, such as an online training on Global Citizenship with more than 2000 participants worldwide, including 75 students from KU Leuven. ”

“LERU then remains important to make good agreements with like-minded European research universities. Our vision is well received by the European Commission. For example, LERU has put a lot of weight on the development of the Horizon Europe framework program.

A lot is also moving at Una Europa. This project, funded by the European Commission, wants to invent the European university of the future. “We are now working with eight universities on a bachelor’s degree in European Studies, where you go to one or two partner institutions for half of the program. This training will start in 2022. We are also working on joint doctoral training courses, primarily on cultural heritage. Other focus themes are artificial intelligence and data science , sustainability and ‘ one health ‘. ”

Ultimately, we want to ensure that students can move smoothly from one university to another, regardless of which study program they are following.

Last month, a research dimension was added to Una Europe with Una.Resin. The aim is to pool knowledge about research careers and infrastructure, among other things, and thus better coordinate research support.

Lievens: “We want to scale up Una Europa’s pilot projects to many more disciplines later on. Ultimately, we want to ensure that students can move smoothly from one university to another, regardless of which study program they are following. ”

“All forms of internationalization aim to increase the quality of education. By working together, we learn from each other. For example, a class with students of different nationalities offers perspectives to develop the intercultural competences of Flemish students, even without traveling. An international class can be a challenge for the teacher, but usually there is a positive effect on quality. In this way, all those involved ultimately move forward. International collaboration has been at the center of research for decades. We are now well on the way to systematically integrating this into education and thus making our courses more diverse.