| 6 minute read

How universities can contribute to a more humane society

Elena Galán-Muros
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Joining us this week is Ignacio Sanchez Díaz, a distinguished rector and professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. With a rich tapestry of roles in academia, he’s a driving force in reshaping the future of education. Ignacio shares insights into navigating through political and pandemic challenges.

Listen in as we explore the evolution of education, the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the pivotal role universities play in fostering a more humane and compassionate society.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Todd Davey:

Ignacio, I would like to better understand the main effects that the COVID pandemic had on the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Ignacio Sánchez Díaz:

During COVID time, we had to make sure that all the students had the proper connectivity and that was a challenge because some of our students didn’t have the resources to access remote teaching. Close to 60% of our students need financial help to pursue higher education studies and, in Chile, the economy was hit hard by COVID.

So, we focused in two main areas: First, how was our university community? It is a community of around 45.000 people between students, professors, and staff. As a president of the university, you have to make sure that the community was doing a good job during the first months of pandemic.

Second, we had to devote our work to make sure that the needs of the country were covered, particularly in everything related to the pandemic. We have one of the biggest medical centres in the country, we are more developed in different procedures and have more technology than other hospitals. We have the biggest intensive care unit in the country, both for adults and for children. So, we received patients from all over the country and we made sure that the use of new technologies and the new procedures were taught to the different hospitals.

In all of that, we were very busy and very connected to other universities and to the Ministry of Health and Education.

Todd Davey:

When talking about connectivity, you mentioned that 60% of students need some sort of help in paying their educational fees. What sort of limitations have emerged during the time of COVID in higher education as we know it today?

Ignacio Sánchez Díaz:

One of the limitations were that most of the professors and the students didn’t have much experience with platforms like Zoom, Meet, or any of the kind. It was very surprising how, in one or two weeks, we had thousands of students and professors connected. The university never stopped the work, and we implemented many new processes like tutorials and self-teaching.

Second challenge was how to change the practical classes, let’s say in chemistry or physics. There were a lot of changes in virtual labs that were accomplished in a few months, as well as in the simulations for the health careers. We had been working on that for several years, but there was a very positive impact of the pandemic to resolve those issues.

Lastly, I will say that the main challenge as a president, vice presidents, directors, deans, etc., was to keep the communication with the people by Arial, meeting in a regular basis and having an open communication through online meetings, emails, WhatsApp chats, etc., to make sure that the connectivity was not broken.

We knew that there were many family and personal issues that people needed to share. In Chile, close to 60.000 people died during the pandemic and 3.5 million people got infected.

Thousands of people in different families were sick and we knew that depression, uncertainty, and fear, were part of the day-to-day lives of our community, so we made the best effort to be informed about what was going on.

Todd Davey:

For other leaders out there, can you provide some steps that you think they could undertake if they wanted their institutions to be more connected with their societies?

Ignacio Sánchez Díaz:

For us, it was crucial to organise our commitment to society in different centres for public policy (e.g.: economy evaluation, education, etc.), which are interdisciplinary and have an open door to what is going on in different universities, at the public level, with industry, etc.

Those centres also have very strong international connections and that is crucial. That’s why joining UIIN and meeting different groups of universities that work together is so important. Our experience can be different from the experience in Brazil, in Europe, or in the States, and we learn from that.

Another key is to involve the students. Not only the undergrads, but also post graduate and doctoral students. We should always promote this interaction between professors and students where they renew their knowledge in a persistent way. In the university, we have people as young as 17 and as old as 85, and all of them are working together, which helps them learn from each other.

And perhaps we should mention the resources issue. There should be a commitment from the government and the private sector to understand that universities do need resources and funding to make sure that we can accomplish the role and the task that the society is asking of us. In Chile, close to 70% of the university budget comes from tuition fees, and only 30% is coming from philanthropy, state money and other actions from the university.

There is a need to understand as a country that, if you ask for the university to do everything that we have been discussing during this conversation, they need to make sure that the universities have the resources to accomplish that”.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can listen now to Jenny Mullery (Community and Impact Manager at IdeasLab, University of Galway) talk about their mission to help students accelerate into the startup ecosystem and develop an entrepreneurial mindset in our episode Fostering the entrepreneurial mindset and student entrepreneurship in higher education. You can also listen to our conversation with Monroe France (Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice at Tufts University), where we discuss how to champion the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion across all levels of an institution in our episode Towards a more diverse, equitable and inclusive university.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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