Joint Virtual Consultation looks at route forward in a post-pandemic world

“We called for unity among us in tackling issues such as access to education, the inclusivity of education, the need to help communities heal from COVID-19, and the fight for both climate justice and sustainability.”

This July, representatives from Christian higher education institutions from around Asia attended a Joint Virtual Consultation hosted by the Association of Christian Universities and Colleges in Asia (ACUCA), Silliman University, and the United Board.

The consultation was both an opportunity to commemorate historic milestones for the host organizations – the ACUCA’s 45th anniversary and Silliman University’s 120th anniversary in 2021 and the United Board’s 100th anniversary in 2022 – and look ahead.

In particular, the consultation featured two keynotes and three conversations on the theme of “Envisioning Christian Higher Education: Our Preferred Futures,” which involved looking at ways to creatively and collaboratively address the challenges of a post-pandemic world.

Betty Cernol McCann, who is president both of Silliman University and the ACUCA, noted that now is the time to take stock of the challenges that Christian higher education institutions need to address. She called for unity among them in tackling issues such as access to education, the inclusivity of education, the need to help communities heal from COVID-19, and the fight for both climate justice and sustainability.

Conversation 1 on access, equity, and inclusion

One challenge that was discussed was helping students adapt to the uncertainties of the future, which was illustrated during the Day 1 keynote address. In that address, Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, professor of lifelong learning at Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University, Germany, encouraged institutions to help students build competencies and skills to handle an unknown and unforeseen future, which demands more than simply knowing how to navigate a digital world, or perform certain tasks. “You are able to deal with the future in which you meet problems which you do not know, which you are not trained to deal with,” Ehlers explained. “That’s the very core of the concept of competence and skills.”

Another topic was the widening digital divide. The pandemic is causing more learning to shift online, which impacts students without the hardware, broadband Internet, and software to participate. Panelists looked at new ways of teaching and learning to bridge this divide and expand the reach of educational institutions. For example, both Yonsei University Health System’s medical mission center in South Korea and the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh are working with community centers near their students to set up stations that can serve as the university’s local Internet access point.

Furthermore, panelists discussed the option of students only being on campus for part of the academic year, attending in person for practical work but taking part remotely at other times. Service-learning programs, which the United Board has supported for many years and helped pioneer in some of our network schools, may present another option by giving students an opportunity to give back to, and learn in the communities that are supporting their university education.

Climate change was another main focus, with Christine Loh, the Chief Development Strategist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Day 2 keynote speaker, encouraging higher education institutions to embed ideas about Planet Earth into their curricula. She talked about the need to reimagine development in a way that goes well beyond simple economic progress to address the Earth’s climate needs.

“Climate change and inequality are actually locked in a visual vicious cycle,” Priscilla Jeyasingh, the dean of academic affairs for the sciences at Lady Doak College, said during a panel conversation. “When climate hazards strike, it is always a disadvantage to people in developing countries like India. Indigenous people or natives, women and children, aged ones, migrant workers and outdoor workers, [these] are the most vulnerable groups because they have far less capacity or capabilities to adapt to these adverse conditions.”

The host organizations worked to ensure that as many participants could take part in envisioning the future of Christian higher education. An average of 164 attendees were present during the live webinar but the open sessions were live streamed on Facebook and YouTube.