When the Silk Road went online: internationalisation of higher education in pandemic times

Teksti | Tiina Wikström
project participant logos.

Erasmus+ project UNICAC is a good example of an international co-operation project that has benefitted from the otherwise challenging COVID-19 times with increased digital developments of higher education especially in Central Asia.

Global co-operation continued

When the world closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries ended up in a lock-down state, airports were emptied out and student and teacher exchanges as well as international project meetings got postponed to unknown future. It seemed the only thing that managed to go global was the virus itself. However, global co-operation did not stop even in this pandemic situation – thousands of projects have still been carried out in these new and challenging, yet also surprisingly inspiring and innovation promoting circumstances.

Erasmus+ project UNICAC

One of such projects is Erasmus+ project UNICAC (University Cooperation Framework for Knowledge Transfer in Central Asia and China), funded by the European Commission. The UNICAC project is implemented from 2019 to 2022, and the UNICAC partners consist of higher education and other institutions from Spain, Italy, Finland, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.

The project promotes international and cross-regional cooperation of higher education institutions (HEIs) in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. This is done by applying different capacity building activities for International Relations Offices (IROs), which contributes to better international networking, potential development and improved cooperation in Teaching, Learning and Research (T/L/R).

Skills promotion in international projects

For partner universities, such as Khorog State University (KSU) in Tajikistan, international projects are very important for several reasons. As Professor Sayfulloeva and her colleague Ms. Ghafurova (2021) from KSU mention, international partnerships as well as studying and participating in different educational events in European universities promote teachers’ and students’ knowledge in specific disciplines. Moreover, such activities also develop their universal competences, such as social skills, international communication knowhow as well as critical thinking, all highly valued by modern employers. For example, Erasmus+ and World Bank projects have also enabled KSU and other higher education institutions to update the required equipment and materials, including their libraries, laboratories and different centers.

According to Sayfulloeva and Ghafurova, the serious educational challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have in fact turned out to be something of an innovation shake-up. As strange as it may sound, the COVID-19 outbreak has actually positively influenced education at KSU, acting as a catalyst for online learning development. Professors and teachers at KSU have started to use both asynchronous learning models by recording their lectures and presentations with the help of KSU Multimedia Center, while also engaging in synchronous teaching and lecturing using various eLearning and video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, Kahoot, Big Blue Button, Skype and Moodle. During these challenging times, the education at KSU has been adapted to a new digital era.

Supporting distance education and open learning culture: the UNICAC project

Sayfulloeva and Ghafurova describe how different EU-funded Erasmus+ projects, such as the UNICAC project, have provided several benefits that have greatly supported a smooth transition to distance education and a more open learning culture at KSU.

The benefits of the UNICAC project include the following:

  • providing tools and activities that promote knowledge transfer and interregional cooperation between Central Asian and Chinese universities that are part of the Silk Road
  • supporting the internationalization process of Central Asian and border Chinese universities
  • increasing the modernization of the international relations departments of the partner institutions
  • promoting  the development of an international network of interregional cooperation
  • strengthening and further developing different forms of knowledge and best practice exchange as well as different types of mobility opportunities for all university actors

Sayfulloeva and Ghafurova even address some challenges and issues that need further attention. The digital skills of the teaching staff can be limited, there are challenges with a high-speed internet access in remote areas, the costs of modern study equipment can be high and investments are needed for a more advanced online education infrastructure. To solve some of these issues, the UNICAC project addresses, among other things, the digital skills need by providing all UNICAC teachers opportunities to co-teach at Laurea UAS, participating in complementary courses offered by Social Services Degree programme and by using, for example, Canvas, Padlet, Miro and Zoom as online educational tools.

International co-operation went digital

The UNICAC project is not the only higher education (HE) project that has benefitted from the increased digital communication amongst project partners. One of the UNICAC partner organizations, Incoma from Sevilla, Spain, conducted a research and created a global survey (Report on the impact of COVID-19 KA2-CBHE projects, 3/2021) in order to understand how COVID-19 affected Capacity Building in HE projects and if this impact might result in long-term changes.

Incoma found out that despite several project setbacks, there were actually a number of improvements that should not be overlooked. The survey shows, how many universities became familiar with online communication and could continue international co-operation also digitally. Actually, it turned out that the Consortium members were more involved and communication improved when online. Online modality was actually more productive in some project activities.

Maybe, despite all the challenges, the COVID-19 can enhance online co-operation in higher education and eventually lead to a new and more digital, open and accessible Silk Road as well.


  • Unicac. Front page. https://unicac.eu/
  • Report on the impact of COVID-19 KA2-CBHE projects. Incoma: 3/2021. http://incoma-projects.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Report-Covid-CB.pdf. Accessed 14.4.2021.
  • Sayfulloeva, O.A. and Ghafurova, M.A. ”Impact of international projects on the higher education system during the pandemic situation COVID-19: the example of KSU” and ”Innovative teaching and learning methods in the higher education system: the experience of European universities.” A UNICAC project analysis. KSU: 2021. Accessed 14.4.2021.
URN http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi-fe2021042927817

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