A couple of months ago, when corona was still mostly known as a brand of beer, Rector Luc Sels and Vice Rector Peter Lievens travelled to Australia with a KU Leuven delegation. Their trip included negotiations with the University of Melbourne about stepping up research collaboration. The result: the two institutions will fund thirty joint doctoral projects together.
The agreement with Melbourne is part of a so-called ‘priority partnership’, somewhat similar to the agreement that KU Leuven recently concluded with the University of Edinburgh. Peter Lievens, Vice Rector for International Policy at KU Leuven: “In this phase, Leuven and Melbourne will fund thirty joint PhDs, spread over three consecutive calls. That is a significant number, especially with a top-level institution such as the University of Melbourne: it is the highest-ranked university in Australia and has a rock-solid reputation worldwide.”
The first call for PhD projects has already been launched by the Research Coordination Office (DOC) at KU Leuven and its counterpart in Melbourne. The next step, then, is recruiting suitable candidates. The goal is for these students to start working on their PhD in 2021.
“In time, we also want to create opportunities for student exchange between KU Leuven and the University of Melbourne,” Lievens continues. “This student exchange is also unrelated to the Global PhD programme: neither collaboration is a prerequisite for the other.”
Student exchange and other forms of internationalisation in the time of corona: is that realistic? What if, for instance, the borders have to close against next year? Luc Sels, Rector at KU Leuven: “No one has a crystal ball, so we can’t rule out a resurgence of the virus, like the one that we're currently seeing in Melbourne. However, our collaboration with Melbourne is a long-term one: the doctoral projects have not yet been submitted, and it takes time to organise student exchange. By then, the situation is likely to be completely different again; we might even have a vaccine.”
“But internationalisation is also so much more than getting on a plane to work or study in another country,” Rector Sels continues. “People tend to forget that. With some creativity and flexibility, we will always find a solution to any problem that may arise. Students who are unable to go abroad due to travel restrictions, for instance, might be able to take an online course from the partner institution of their choice on a KU Leuven campus. In any case, we look forward to welcoming our new international students and researchers with open arms in the next academic year, and we’ll make sure to give them an unforgettable KU Leuven experience. Internationalisation is and remains an important pillar of our policy, even in the time of corona.”
In Melbourne, the view is also that universities should keep an eye on developing international research links, even though there may be constraints on the mobility of researchers and jointly enrolled PhD candidates. “It is important that international research continues in all its forms, and can flourish, even though we face extremely challenging circumstances at present,” says Professor Jim McCluskey, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at the University of Melbourne. “This new PhD programme is a long-term commitment that will help build and broaden research activity between Melbourne and KU Leuven in the future.”
Both KU Leuven and Melbourne are members of Universitas 21, a global network of research-driven universities that work together to boost international higher education. Rector Sels: “Our new partnership with Melbourne proves once again that networking works. When universities find each other in international networks, truly wonderful projects emerge.”
The University of Melbourne and KU Leuven have launched a call for ten joint PhDs projects. The deadline for submission is 8 September 2020.