This year’s RGS-IBG conference was rich in multiple sessions and presentations discussing the various angles for researching the multi-scalar and multi-locational geographies of higher education. In addition to continuing efforts of geographers to unpack the complex and ever shifting mobilities of students in the globalizing higher education landscape, the sessions showed how higher education and universities have become entangled with financializing global capitalism. This pointed to the various ways in which universities function as urban actors that shape our cities, and also challenged established understandings of the role of universities for regional, urban, and community development.
Together with Michael Hoyler from Loughborough University, Marc Schulze and Tim Rottleb organised the session ‘Understanding the global geographies of the knowledge-based economy: transformations, disruptions and reproductions of transnational higher education’, sponsored by the RGS-IBG Economic Geography Research Group. The presenters showed that the relation between higher education and the (imagined) knowledge-based economy is ambiguous and charged with tensions. With geographically very diverse case studies, which ranged from networks of cities in China (presentation by Xu Zhan), to smaller cities like Sudbury in Canada (Sutama Gosh), to global cities like London (Bryte Amponsah) or Singapore (Do Young Oh), the presenters explored the spatialities created by contemporary transnational higher education. Similar to what Tim Rottleb argued during his own presentation, the presentations highlighted that the urban is a crucial scale for understanding the economic geographies that are created by internationalizing universities, and that investments and strategies of marketizing universities are driven by powerful geographical and economic imaginaries.
In the following session, ‘(Re)thinking transnational education in the age of recovery’, Marc Schulze presented our joint work-in-progress paper on the impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic on offshore campuses. This presentation argued that the linkages between offshore campuses and their – local and regional – host environments can make a difference in how severely higher education institutions are affected by external shocks. This not only drew the attention to revisiting the transnational university-regional development nexus, but also underlined the need for re-conceptualizing offshore campuses’ embeddedness in the sub-nation scale region. Overall, the various contributions and panel discussions at the RGS-IBG 2022 demonstrated that the geographies of higher education are far more than an empirically interesting topic. Rather, the field is closely intertwined with broader theoretical discussions in human geography and its various sub-disciplines, and thus warrants deeper urban, economic and political geographic engagement. We hope that we can build on the many personal connections with colleagues that we made during the conference and to continue the exchange in the future.