Professor Isabel Gil, Rector of the Catholic University of Portugal and President of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) addresses the Southeast and East Asian Catholic Colleges and Universities (ASEACCU) 1st Webinar-Workshop – Beyond the Pandemic: Best Practices toward Sustainable Development.

Rector Gil is honored to greet us on behalf of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. She shares thoughts on ongoing challenges and threats to Catholic higher education in the face of global trying times and calls for joint global responses and for the anthropological and spiritual dimensions of the human. 

During the last two years, higher education globally suffered tremendously. The Pandemic has been a challenge to higher education systems at large, exerting pressure on modes of knowledge production, access, and recruiting strategies, limiting in fact the necessary cosmopolitanism of University education that drives contact and global interaction despite its many affordances. “Internationalization at home does not compensate for the movement abroad that shapes the intellectual agenda of 21st-century citizens”, explains rector Gil. 
According to UNESCO statistics, in the wake of the Pandemic, more than 2200 students worldwide were unable to realize their mobility periods abroad. “Still, others were literally stranded in foreign countries, unable to return home.  Most governments worldwide were also at odds with the blows to higher education policies that threatened inclusive access. Many students, as we know, could not have access to remote learning for a lack of technological infrastructure,” elucidates our president. 

Simultaneously, there was a strategic inability to place support for higher education at the forefront of concerns. “On the institutional level, the very mission of the University was affected. While financial stress has forced the closure of some institutions or caused survival mergers, the enrolment of international students, a source of revenue for many universities worldwide, forced the reckoning of sorts on the business model of many higher education institutions,” she delineates. For instance, analyses the rector, “the numbers in Europe are quite relevant and in the US as well. The number of international students dropped by 20% in Germany in the academic year 2021 22 and by 16% in the US, with a sharp drop of 43% in new student enrolment. In Australia, applications for student visas dropped between 80% to 90%. And finally, the universities were deeply affected also by their methodologies and pedagogical models. It was one thing to adopt technological transformation in a controlled environment, and quite another to plunge head-on overnight into full digital”, expounds the rector. “It is thus of the essence to understand the difference between emergency remote teaching, which many universities were forced to do throughout the globe, and this emergency remote teaching was adopted with the general satisfaction of our students, as we know. But this is quite different from online teaching models that involve changes in methodology and the curriculum,” argues Isabel Gil. 

This is the place where we are now learning from the trials and using this moment as an opportunity for change. “Universities were the agents, victims, and villains of the crisis, spilling over from health into the economy and the social contract. The social model of universities was challenged, our mode of knowledge production, our capacity to innovate”, declares the Full Professor of Culture Studies at the School of Human Sciences.

As well, there were many opportunities there. Professor Isabel Gil likes to emphasize the role of the four-party dimension: agents, actors, villains, and knowledge centers. Many medical schools that belong to Catholic universities were at the forefront of the global fight against the disease. “Worldwide, Catholic Universities did our task and research centers worked in coalition on a wide array of solutions, from medical solutions to psychological care. There were many government-led research programs in Europe within the scope of horizon 20. But throughout the globe, many other areas and framework programs were specifically focused on not only working on academic recovery plans but also trying to understand the impact of the COVID 19 on several areas, from physiology and biology to the behavioral sciences. (…) Universities were also victims, having to deal with the looming financial crisis, rising unemployment, decrease in revenue, and a strong need for strong investment in technological infrastructure. In addition, the swift change to remote learning models was mostly an exercise in improvisation though as we know a very successful one and I want to commend all the catholic universities for the tremendous job that you all did. At most institutions, faculty lacked the proper preparation and the skills to take full advantage of the possibilities of online teaching. This is certainly true and this model was basically implemented in synchronous models so Zoom and the team’s platform consisted largely of the transition of the in-person lecturing strategy to a screen-mediated one. So there was not a structured transformation but an improvised moment of adapting traditional models to new platforms. And as we all know, students were generally satisfied with the solutions,” argues the rector. 

The model that the Generation Z favors 

Worldwide, the big majority of students wanted to resume in-person learning and teaching models as soon as possible and they value, of course, the strong difference between online instruction and in-person instruction. “This model is what the Generation Z truly favors as a university model and clearly as laid out in the Congregation for Catholic Educations. Transitional Norms Distance Learning cannot and is not considered a full alternative to teaching in the physical presence of students. So what started out as a crisis with most nations forced into remote transition is now paving the way to a more nimble, flexible, and at times less formal instruction framework. We can see how our friends, students, and teachers live through their screens, perhaps enabling also new forms of sociality”, assumes our president. 

Video conferences may seem to have replaced the classroom, but libraries, too, will soon reopen for the ones who learn to read on paper.

“The results and the lessons that we’ve had from the Pandemic are very clear, although the large majority as I said, of the student force, was pleased and satisfied with the move. They also are quite aware that the affordances of remote lecturing fall sharply short of students’ perception of the intensity of a face-to-face experience. The splendor of technology has brought a lot of souls searching both for institutions and their members, and there is no clear path ahead”, she reasons.  

We are learning by doing. While remote learning may widen access and free the learner from the constrictions of time and space, it also falls short of the empathic engagement between student and scholar that has shaped the University.

“As we know, while technology is here to stay, so is presence-based experiential learning. Covid and other Pandemic-related financial troubles may very likely lead to a trimming down of the global higher education network in the post-confinement period. This is clearly an additional element stressing both Catholic universities and most universities in general. We know we have difficulties in recruiting international students because of the challenges to mobility, the visa uncertainties, and the rise of the global rise of a politics of walls that is posing a clear danger to the very idea of the University. I want to address specifically the situation of ecclesiastical faculties that are at times some of the most international hubs at our universities and colleges, with seminarians coming from all over the world.

At my own institutions the School of Theology has students from 31 different nationalities from Bangladesh to Poland, Chile to Spain to Angola, and the Catholicity, the universal dimension of the Church and of the training of clerics for the Church, is being deeply challenged with these visa restrictions and the rise of the politics of walls, which are in a way disrupting the sense of global dialogue that is essential also to the implementation of Veritatis Gaudia”, postulates professor Gil.

We’ve seen some areas where governments have moved to deport even international students. “This was, as we know, the situation, and this poses a tremendous trial to our model of university engagement. Clearly, there is no University without intellectual exchange, without international cooperation, and a Catholic University that is committed to the mission of the Church, a Church that goes forth requires universities that are not limited to the nation’s boundaries. So we do need to continue to pursue this opening and the fight against the politics of walls. A final element of this crisis, specifically in the field of our mission as Catholic institutions, was the impact on Campus Ministry”, explicates the rector.

The limits to in-person practice affected the catholic community. Many universities resorted to weekly remote math and to daily asynchronous prayer services, which were strongly attended. “The data we have at IFCU is truly impressive because, at many institutions, campus Ministry and the support from chaplains that were provided remotely were extremely important to maintain the spiritual balance of our students very specifically as well for students who were dislocated from their homes and felt anxious, alone and in stress. But while universities were victims, they were agents. They adapted.

Universities have also been villains, mostly in the way some have listlessly adopted technological devices without a specific strategy, embracing a technocracy that pays lip service to the market and feeding the formative spiritual dimension of higher education. The pandemic, coupled with political short-sightedness, is affecting this universal Catholicity of universities, the sense of global Communion shaping education as human integral formation in preparation for the post-COVID life. Here are a few lessons that we have learned. First, the University as an in-person community of scholars and students remains the privileged model for quality higher education entrepreneurial approaches. Announcing the end of the degree and its substitution for stackable credit units or the limiting of higher education to professional training has not withstood the trial test of COVID-19”, assumes Gil.

Technology as a supplement

The second lesson: technology as a supplement to traditional in-person instruction is here to stay. There is no way that we are going back. “The opportunity to renew traditional pedagogy and strengthen collaborative learning models must be embraced as part of a clearly defined strategy articulated with the mission and the goals of the institution. An implementation of education-friendly technology affords inclusion and enhances cooperation, but requires digital design training for faculty members and it requires something else because we are aware that in most parts of the globe it’s not simply about the transformation of the institution, it’s also about the ability of students to have technological access. So this is something that needs to be worked on contextually so that the institution may be able to afford its communities with the tools required for this tech access.

Spaces and infrastructure also require reconfiguration from delivering rooms centered on the traditional seminar model to creativity enhancing and knowledge communicating spaces”, postulates professor Gil.

Global dialogue

The third lesson that Rector Gil tough us is the need for a continued focus on global dialogue and the creation of networks despite limits to mobility and the trials of global exchange. “As the sanitary situation improves, we will have to resume our networks and our global exchange models. In order to pursue one’s mission in a consistent manner, global engagement is absolutely crucial”, describes the rector. 

The fourth lesson we’ve learned with Isabel Gil is that “Catholic universities must take this opportunity to focus their strategy and development on impact-driven and socially sustainable goals”. 

This is a moment to implement strategic plans, and prepare a strategic development, norms, and guidelines, but also a moment to be focused on the global sustainable development goals. Still, for many, elucidates Rector Gil, “the traditional University model is arguably broken. I’m moving now into a discussion of the criticism of the model. This notion that the University model is broken was brought about by one of the foremost theorists in innovation from the University of Harvard. A man named Christensen said that the traditional model is broken. Covid 19 has demonstrated that it is broken because, despite all the moves and the transformations and the context, University leaders still hang on to outdated teaching standards”. 

In some areas of Asia, there is a strained business model that reflects demands and pricing pressures that were previously unheard of in higher education. “Of course, he’s referring to the transformation that’s not the shift into online and technological driven instruction will place on financial models of some of these prestigious universities, certainly because the campus experience will not be the same, and we are all clearly aware of that”, analyzes the rector of the Portuguese Catholic University, explaining that, “in addition to Christensen’s criticism of the model, we have been aware that upon graduation the new marketplace entrance was woefully unprepared, meaning that the relation between market skills and the instruction provided at universities was nonexistent”. 

So, it seems that we are not preparing students for the labor market. Degree-granting model of four-year studies model of university education is, probably, going to change. “It is going to be substituted by continuous lifelong learning, where the very idea of a structured, specialized degree would disappear fully and be replaced by a task”, told Gil. The University of the future would be “a university that is not valued due to its reputation and tradition, but that is rather big data-driven that does not convey a general one size fits all education but customized models and credit accumulation system”, expounds the professor. 

According to these disruptive, market-oriented models, the University as a learning institution would require many changes. “If they don’t, they will have their institutions cast aside of a once glorious past. So this is certainly an apocalyptic scenario. And we see this in the discussion of graduates stranded in the wide ocean of placement as a result of the breaking up of knowledge into small icebergs that are not consistent with the skills needed in the market at large. Of course, we know as well that some change is needed. As I said at the beginning, I am certainly not a radical disrupter, and I do not believe in apocalyptic scenarios. But certainly, there are some elements in this discussion that we must take into consideration, and one of them has to do with the articulation of the skill set needed for a flexible and changing marketplace and our model of instruction. We have all universities worldwide that are the heirs to century-old models of knowledge production based on strategies of paradigmatic separation and specialization. But at a time when societal transformations are increasingly global in scope, complex in nature, and solutions draw on collaborative networks”, argues the president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, postulating: “I wouldn’t say that all is bad, that universities are broken, and unable to provide robust answers to the challenges of innovation to the growing pains arising from the widening of the conflict, the worsening of climate change, and the increase of the extreme poverty. And certainly one of the things we’ve learned from the pandemic is that universities were key to solving the scientific issues and promoting a solution. So despite these profits of doom, a world without universities is not conceivable and is not desirable”. 

Forward steps

According to Isabel Gil, after Covid-19, we need to move forward in a more robust way. “I would say these other four forces are technological innovation, of course, and digital transformation. The second one is radical professionalization. Globalization, of course, and institutional disruption for the first one. Technological innovation and the digital transformation challenge educational models and add stress to human resources and place finances under duress. They require a huge investment in technology, certainly, and rapidly disrupt the medium of instruction, forcing us as university leaders to adapt traditional one-to-many presence-based classes, to tech pump models in many learning environments, boosting the use of video and online materials, and decreasing person to person contact hours, but not fully substituting person-to-person. And this is important” assumes the rector. 

Although we are certainly going to develop our institutional models based on and driven by new technological devices, one of the lessons that we learned with the pandemic is that technology will not fully substitute person to person. 

“We will have to create models that articulate the two forms, taking the best out of technology, but not fully substituting the full campus experience and person-to-person instruction. Second, force radical professionalization: this issue is at the heart of most debates around the soul of the University from, I would say, the 19th century onwards, not to go back to the Middle Ages. In Europe, there was a process 20 years ago called the Bologna Process that shifted the mission of universities and aligned it very deeply with professionalization. And many critics of this process were vocal about speaking out against the submission of academic training to the demand side of the knowledge economy and the debasement of the University into a professional school”, considers the professor. 

The increasing prestige of some professional degrees, such as business, engineering, or medicine, “further expands the anxiety over linking the wealth of a diverse knowledge ecology to market needs. So this is certainly an issue that we are all dealing with recurrently. But in fact, the problem is not and can never be the simple idea of professionalization. Right?”, she questions. 

In a world where traditional jobs are undergoing change, it is of the essence of University education to provide adequate skill sets that may promote the employability of graduates, certainly. “But this doesn’t mean simply that universities are transforming into full-fledged professional schools, because other than employability, there is also an element, and specifically for Catholic universities very strongly the notion of integral formation, of educating citizens, of placing the intellectual formation of the person at the heart of our mission”, she reasons. 

Globalization goes without saying. It has, over the last decades, brought on a defining change to the face of higher education. And, as we know, as the demand for University education grows, so does the global mobility of students. “In 2017, one of the years where the number of global mobility was the highest, it peaked at an all-time height of 5.7 million students worldwide, taking part in exchange programs. This global mobility speaks to the nature of the global marketplace as well, which has become an aspirational model for millennial graduates, forcing universities to rethink their model of knowledge production from a regional or mostly national model to educating the world. The Fourth force, the Fourth element, and perhaps one of the greatest challenges to higher education is the institutional disruption that arises from in some areas”, explicates professor Gil, assuming a perceived lack of prominence in universities. “In national strategic planning policies or the attack on expert culture by disruptive entrepreneurs, as I’ve mentioned earlier as well. Likewise, the millennial sharing culture and the buzz of problem-centered approaches pivoting around the nonacademic crowdsourcing of solutions bring added strength to institutions. A passionate allegiance to disruption is taking consultants by storm”, she postulates.

Universities need to change 

Universities need to change their organization. They need to transform their mode of knowledge production, which is to be increasingly technological. They need to create stronger ties.

“Businesses produce innovative solutions that will shorten the time to market and ultimately disrupt the very idea of a wholesale degree. These forces may threaten to radically change what was the foundational understanding of a university that is a space where scholars and students seek to freely engage in learning for the advancement of society in our common good”, delineates the professor. 

Clearly, the University is a protected space where freedom and responsibility have exerted an institution that prepares for life, as mentioned in one definition of what a University is, by Stefan Collini, a British author, and English literary critic and academic. Professor Isabel Gil explains: “I want to quote his definition of a university, which is, I think quite inspirational even for our post-COVID world. A University, it may be said, is a protected space in which various forms of useful preparation for life are undertaken in a setting and manner which encourages the students to understand the contingency of any particular packet of knowledge and its interrelations with other different forms of knowledge. Now, useful preparation for life is certainly inaccurate, though still a partial definition of what a University is and does, and arguably does not account for that other dimension of the value proposition that seems to have been forgotten in the wider conversation around universities. And it is our mission as Catholic universities to pay attention to this other central and noble dimension”, she posits. Narrowing the value of an education to the debate has been nothing but unproductive. “And we can go back to late 1800 when the new universities of Liverpool and Birmingham were founded in the UK with the mission to provide a more pragmatic education to the youth, and there was a pamphlet running around in Oxford that joked about this debasement. These two universities were created focused on technical degrees, engineering, and so on. Oxford, of course, joked about this and there was a pamphlet that was being widely circulated that criticized this model, and one of the lines in the pamphlet was, and I quote, ‘he gets degrees in making jam at Liverpool and Birmingham right’? So looking down on graduates in outlandish areas for the Oxfordians, such as engineering…And later in the past century, 20th century, the President of the University of Chicago, a man called Robert Maynard Hutchins, wrote that ‘the purpose of education is not to produce arms for the industry. It is also important to teach the youth to earn a living. But it’s more than that because University education aims to educate responsible citizens”, analyzes the president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities.

What is the value of Catholic higher education?

 If without the labor and skill set proposition, beyond the logic of a return on investment, where does the value of university education lie in the 21st century? “How can the University, and specifically the Catholic University, maintain its relevance before the demise of the expert culture and before a certain iconoclasm of the data-driven knowledge society? And in this situation, what is the value of Catholic higher education? Let me venture a proposition. The unique singularity of our mission will certainly be aligned with training the youth, with the skill sets that will make them employable. But it goes beyond that. The singularity of our mission is to create value within values. The two main questions that basically define our academic endeavor are what are we good at and what are we good for? These questions are at the heart of our identity, our mission, and our activity. As Catholic universities, they can note the ancestral quest for truth and goodness. What we are good at is looking relentlessly for truth through research and teaching and in the daily encounter with our constituencies, students, faculty, staff, and our third mission stakeholders. What we are good for is to contribute to the good of society in the supplied manner, striving for a deeper dialogue, to drive dignified, living in the service of our common house. But it is also important to understand that our mission is axiologically driven, that our reasoning is enriched by faith, just as faith is widened by reason.

And as Jesus explained to the Doctor of the Law and the parable of the Good Samaritan, the openness to diversity to otherness is to be embraced and will only enrich our mission, enhancing our relevance to address the uncertainty and complexity of our world because through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness”, argues Isabel Gil. 

As Pope Francis wrote in 2021, the landscape of higher education has changed fast and irrevocably. “Challenges range from the role of the University in the knowledge society. What is the University for its relevance? To respond to the overwhelming challenges faced by contemporary societies? Why is it relevant? Should it continue to be supported by governments and society at large? Does the organizational model pursue? How should the University of the future be organized, especially in the wake of COVID-19 with a different wording?”, questions our president. 

Perhaps these are precisely the challenges addressed by Pope Francis designed for ecclesiastical universities and clearly binding them with the wider situation facing research and education in our times. “Despite the points of tension, I would argue the queries and questionings which are in fact part and parcel of the nature of an institution such as a university, will always be in the making. 

The epistemological and economic value of Catholic universities is an unquestionable testimony to the freedom of the Church’s, encounter with society their quality and global breadth are evidence of the ability to attract top talent and be competitive in their projects and in the educational legacy”, she elucidates.

Our social, environmental, cultural, and economic value is led by the mission to go forth and do good, effectively improving life in the communities served by the universities. “In the global ranking leagues such as the Times Higher Education, there are twelve Catholic or Catholic-inspired institutions placed in the rankings’ first quartile. But Catholic universities are diverse throughout. Wherever they are, they are different, they’re diverse, they’re lively, and that is the richness that our global system encompasses”, explains the president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, keenly aware of the specific value proposition of Catholic universities that are based on articulating, the distinguishability of a specific Christian humanist approach to the realities of life, society, science, and culture on the one hand, and on the other, on the acknowledged inheritability of the Catholic intellectual tradition, that is to thrive and that is to make institutions stronger by building on new cooperative coalitions with other universities that share the same intellectual agenda.

“Stronger institutions, more qualified in the training of their resources, truly connected with the realities of the cultures in which they are embedded and collaborative in engaging the difference of their community members are liable to uphold a better service to society and to the Church only by developing concrete and viable solutions, as Pope Francis inspires us to do. Many universities, working with the communities where they are embedded, develop in the future generation of students the capacity to aspire.

That is quintessential for the budding of talent. The specific value proposition of Catholic universities flourishes not by paying lip service to a sort of reed identity, but by repeated practice of quality in everything we do, teaching, research, and knowledge transfer”, reasons professor Isabel, finishing with a metaphor for our particular value proposition: “At Catholic University, our distinguishing feature is not the factory of knowledge, but the studio of knowledge. From the Latin studio, the studio connotes practice and inner inspection, the act of practicing and reflection. It is in the studio that novelty emerges, but it is a novelty that is labored and reflected upon. The studio is also an experimental and experiencing space where the artistic gesture is exercised, repeated, erased, redrafted, wiped out, destroyed, and restarted until the artist is satisfied with the composition, and this the University as a studio, a studio inspired by the human Catholic intellectual tradition. This studio is arguably a good description of what Catholic universities do”.

José Manuel Simões,
ASEACCU Executive Editor, Associate Professor, Communication and Media Department Coordinator at USJ