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2020: The year that taught us

Published on 15 December 2020
2020 The Year That Taught Us

2020 has been an unforgettable year. Whilst the pandemic has presented unforeseen challenges, it has also prompted many of us to pause and reimagine future ways of working together.

We are proud of the ways in which our member universities have demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to the pandemic. Higher education has been at the heart of global solutions to COVID-19 – from scientific research and the record-breaking discovery of a vaccine, to statistical modelling and behavioural science that underpins public health measures, to supporting local communities through the outbreak.

As the year draws to a close, at the ACU we’ve been reflecting on what the higher education sector and our network of over 500 universities, has learned and achieved during this unprecedented year.

Virtual learning

The rapid shift to virtual teaching and learning has boosted digital transformation in many institutions and highlighted the potential of online delivery. The Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL) – a project led by the ACU and funded by the UK government – enabled 23 universities in east Africa to set up emergency online teaching, and is now helping these institutions optimise virtual and blended learning experiences for the long term.

International mobility

Virtual international mobility is another example of where we have seen innovation in turning the threat of COVID-19 into an opportunity. Virtual mobility and exchange projects have the potential to offer international experiences to a wider and more diverse group. Working with our members, we provided over 50 students with international educational and cultural experiences while remaining at home at our first-ever virtual Summer School. We have also developed a toolkit to share best practice and practical advice on virtual international student engagement.

Access and inclusion

This year has highlighted pre-existing issues of structural inequality and historic injustice. Universities have a responsibility to consider their role in making our societies more equal and inclusive. The first series of our new podcast – The Internationalist – looks at the critical question of ‘Who gets to learn, who gets to teach?’ and brings together a wide range of perspectives from across the Commonwealth to talk about issues such as decolonising the curriculum, reparations, and the student experience.

Higher education and the SDGs

Universities are the key to healthier, fairer and greener societies, and none of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved without the contribution of higher education. As we lead up to COP26, the UN climate conference in November 2021, the ACU will be showcasing the work of member universities to address climate change, championing the role of research to address global challenges, and developing the next generation of climate research leaders.

We should be inspired by our collective strength and ingenuity in responding to COVID-19. Through international collaboration, we can foster stronger, more vibrant higher education systems, and create opportunities for individuals and societies.

Looking to 2021, we feel energised and hopeful for the opportunities we have to reshape the future. If we achieved all this during 2020, imagine what we could do in 2021 - and beyond.


Thank you to ACU members Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Ian Rowlands from the University of Waterloo, Canada for their video contributions.