Ghent University: a pioneer in international cooperation

Ghent University Global Campus

More than ever, universities are the driving force behind international knowledge exchange and cooperation. Ghent University is continually active on the international stage and takes on a pioneering role in that respect. Rector Rik Van de Walle takes us on a fascinating journey through its successful teaching and research initiatives.

The coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on our international activities. How is Ghent University doing in terms of internationalisation in 2024?

Rik Van De Walle: During the coronavirus period, we did see a sharp decline, particularly in terms of international student and staff mobility. Travel was either impossible or subject to strict regulations. Some suggested turning this new and unprecedented situation into some kind of new normal. I disagreed with that, by the way. Forging lasting ties with colleagues and institutions abroad requires travel and physically looking each other in the eye.

What we experienced during the pandemic made us see even more clearly the importance of those lasting ties – and therefore those physical international contacts. In 2024, we focus on this even more than before. This also applies to me personally: if a rector and institution are serious about internationalisation, they have to walk the talk.

Practical international cooperation tends to be primarily relevant to our professors, lecturers and researchers. As rector, what role do you play in this process, for example at Ghent University's missions abroad?

Ghent University's missions abroad primarily serve to set up or further develop cooperation between our professors, programmes or research groups on the one hand, and existing or interesting new partners in the country we are visiting on the other. As a rector, I mainly have a facilitating role at such a mission, based on my personal experience with internationalisation and my vision of it. My participation opens doors that would otherwise stay closed. It also means that we can have conversations with key figures we would otherwise not have access to. This allows us to achieve more concrete results more quickly. When prospecting professors visit partner universities under the Ghent University flag, they also tend to benefit from the relationships other colleagues have already built.

Besides broadening or deepening the existing cooperation, these missions also have other results. They usually stem from what I call brokerage: during the many formal and informal conversations we have on site, we try to put the spotlight on our institution and our professors, courses and research groups as much as possible. This often results in interesting avenues for cooperation, which are followed up in a practical way upon our return. To maximise networking opportunities, we usually organise one or more local alumni events at each mission, to which we invite our international alumni, expats who went to Ghent University and people from Ghent University who are staying there at the time.

Missions abroad require a substantial effort. Is there enough return on investment? Could you give some examples of specific results?

"At the Belgian trade mission to Australia in October 2023, we organised a seminar on the blue economy together with a number of relevant players, including a large Australian alliance of industrial, research and government partners. This participation allowed us to highlight our strong research reputation in this area to our Australian, Belgian and European partners. We also visited some partner universities to expand our cooperation. One specific result is that we managed to generate interest in our activities in South Korea: thanks to our actions, two Australian partners have since set up prospecting activities there.

We achieved another notable success after a recent visit to the University of California in Berkeley. Students who want to access courses offered by such prestigious US universities from Belgium often face all kinds of obstacles, such as high tuition fees and strict selection criteria. We struck a deal with the University of California in Berkeley about its Summer Sessions Programme, which is a compact version of the leading Berkeley curriculum. In the summer of 2024, five excelling Ghent University students – each from a different faculty – will be able to participate in this programme for the first time. The fact that we get to select and send the students ourselves is not at all self-evident: you can only gain the trust of players of this stature by having conversations with them on site. I'm immensely proud of that achievement."

“I believe very strongly in the power of academic diplomacy and consider my efforts in that respect as one of my most important tasks.”
Rik Van de Walle  /  Rector Ghent University

You referred to your participation in a Belgian economic mission to Australia earlier. How is that different from Ghent University's regular international missions?

"There are two special types of foreign trips: economic missions led by Princess Astrid, which happen twice a year, and state visits led by the King and Queen Consort of Belgium, which also tend to occur twice a year. These missions are organised by our governments and the royal family. All Belgian rectors and several other economic, political and social players are invited to them. I generally participate in all those missions. Earlier I mentioned the importance of being able to open doors that would otherwise remain closed. If you can travel in the wake of the King or a princess of Belgium, doors open that would otherwise remain closed to rectors as well.

Setting up or developing concrete cooperation is always our primary goal at economic missions and state visits. We also organise many separate bilateral visits on the occasion of a trade mission. Such trips obviously also play a significant role in academic diplomacy. I often take on a more general advocacy role in that respect: I defend not only the interests of our own university but also those of Belgian higher education as a whole and even those of academics in general.

Research and teaching are our core business. However, we always have to see those activities as part of the society they are embedded in. Especially in times when political or economic cooperation is difficult or even impossible due to wars and geopolitical tensions, universities can ensure that some form of contact or exchange remains possible across the inevitable dividing lines. History has shown that such contacts can be the seeds for later rapprochement in other areas. I believe very strongly in the power of academic diplomacy and consider my efforts in that respect as one of my most important tasks. Again, by letting my actions do the talking. Literally not a week goes by where I don't meet an ambassador or another important foreign representative."

These Belgian missions take us into the field of international advocacy. You were also President of CESAER these past four years. What is the role of organisations like CESAER in our internationalisation strategy?

"Ghent University is a member of several international networks. Our student and staff are probably most familiar with our European universities alliance ENLIGHT, but we are also closely involved in overarching sector organisations such as CESAER, The Guild and the European University Association (EUA). Our membership of these organisations is particularly valuable to us for two reasons. Firstly, they are a platform on which we can very easily exchange good practices in terms of our core tasks and operations with institutions that often have a similar profile. Secondly, they allow us to make our mark on European policy initiatives in areas such as higher education, research and innovation. As an individual institution alone, it is virtually impossible to make anything happen in that respect.

I'm well aware that our activities in such organisations often don't reach our professors, lecturers and researchers properly. These networks are an important link in our progress and the successes professors, teachers and researchers have achieved in the field. A typical example is the funding of research and education from European programmes. Ghent University is particularly successful in this field: in Horizon Europe, the current framework programme for research and innovation, our return for 2023 was the third best of all participating universities. This was, of course, primarily due to the excellent proposals submitted by our researchers. Our success is also the result of previously made considerable efforts – sometimes via organisations such as CESAER, The Guild or EUA – to shape programmes and concrete calls in a way that made our success more likely."

Ghent University is the only Belgian university that also has a location abroad: our campus in South Korea. The Ghent University Global Campus (GUGC) was established almost from scratch exactly ten years ago. How do you look back on this story – and more importantly, what does the future hold?

"Of course we were honoured that the Korean Government asked Ghent University to start an extended campus in Incheon. There was also a lot of scepticism, though: a venture like this can also go very wrong. I was certainly not among the project's biggest supporters at first. However, looking back over the past ten years, I can only conclude that we have achieved all the original goals. We can be really proud of that. Moreover, a mature academic entity has now gradually emerged from this pioneering work, where a dynamic and internationally diverse group of professors and staff teach, conduct more research and engage in community outreach.

Ever since mid-2023, I have personally devoted a significant part of my time to our GUGC activities. Earlier this year, for instance, I went to GUGC for a whole week to brainstorm on an ambitious strategy for the next 10 years with the entire team. This vision for the future is still being developed, but I can already reveal that the intention is to further embed the campus in its own specific context through strong partnerships with relevant local and global actors, while ensuring that GUGC becomes a more visible part of our overall university operations and organisation rather than a stand-alone initiative. Essentially, we do the same there as here in Ghent, so let's recognise GUGC as a fully-fledged entity that is an integral part of Ghent University and also defines our identity."

Read also

Education of the future: Ghent University pioneers new European University

Ghent University is becoming more international than ever. In fact, the university will be part of ENLIGHT, a brand-new collaboration project, together with eight other European universities. This should make it easier to take courses abroad, conduct research across the borders and team up in tackling social challenges.

Studenten met mondmasker