Higher Education

How post-secondary institutions support positive change around the world

“’What have you done to make the world a better place?’

It’s a question we all ask ourselves at some point in our lives. It’s also the question driving some of the most important work happening in post-secondary education today.

Academics and institutions across Canada are collaborating with organizations from around the world to solve some of the globe’s most challenging problems. Many of these problems can be found in developing countries, where challenges related to education, healthcare, and infrastructure remain significant, although much progress has been made against difficult odds. Academics have taken a collaborative approach to addressing these challenges, working directly with individuals and organizations based in these countries to build the capacity they need to address these problems in the long term.

It was with the goal of supporting and organizing this crucial work that Academics Without Borders was founded.”

Read more of this article featured in Academica’s Today’s Top Ten in Higher Ed on May 29, 2018.

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February 9, 2018 – Volunteer blog from Malawi

Blantyre KCN campus – Gertrude Mwalaba and Gibson, Dean of Research

My goodness – our third and final week in Malawi! Our work with the Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN) faculty, students and key stakeholders has flown by.

This past week, Pammla and I divided our energies. Pam assisted individual faculty members, doctoral students and small groups with individual manuscripts and grant proposals; nine manuscripts and at least three grants were reviewed and critiqued. In contrast, Dean Gertrude, Dean of Research Gibson, and I left Monday afternoon to spend two days at the Blantyre Campus of KCN. It was a drive of over 400 kilometers (one way) on a two-lane highway that runs through many villages. Our capable driver Peter deftly threaded his way through the countryside.

Cows have the right of way

Still, I found it a hair-raising journey, as the villagers – men, women and children and livestock – travel both narrow shoulders of the highway until well after dark. With many pedestrians, bicycles, heavy rain, and the oncoming headlights of rumbling lorries, it was more than challenging. Oh, and did I mention that in Malawi one drives on the left-hand side of the road?

Tuesday morning dawned bright and fresh. The Blantyre campus proved to be a pastoral miniature of the Lilongwe Campus. We proceeded to enjoy a delightful all-day workshop, primarily with KCN master’s students. Together, we identified a compelling research interest area related to the developing roles and responsibilities of Malawian birth companions, and then developed a scoping review of the literature in the morning, and a related grant proposal in the afternoon. I have worked with many graduate students in my time, but this was one of the most engaged and appreciative groups I have ever worked with. Energizing!

Wednesday, Gertrude and I met with the Blantyre faculty to discuss their scholarly interests, issues related to the inclusion of knowledge users in research, the advantages of working in research groups, and issues pertaining to the balance between faculty teaching and research. Clearly, the struggle to balance workload is an international issue we share. In Malawi, where faculty members, nurses and midwives are in short supply, finding that balance is even more daunting.

Traditional Malawian musicians under the mahogany tree

Our final two days were devoted to numerous external stakeholder consultations as we sought to ground KCN’s scholarship more firmly within the context of Malawi’s developing health and health human resource priorities. Our visits included meeting with the Principal, Malawi College Health Sciences, the Department Head of Environmental Health, University of Malawi Polytechnic, and a repeat visit to the National Director of Nursing Midwifery, where we compared and discussed, in far more detail, the emergent health and health human resources priorities of Malawi.
Dr. Pammla Petrucka and I were honoured to have this opportunity to work with KCN and KCN’s stakeholders, to help them build nursing scholarship and research capacity. We were impressed by the passion, knowledge, skills and experience we found here and we will continue to review grant proposals and manuscripts for our Malawian friends upon our return to Canada. We salute our new friends and colleagues for their passion and commitment in the face of challenges far beyond the experience of most Canadians. On behalf of KCN, Dean Gertrude, Pammla and I, we want to formally thank Academics Without Borders for this wonderful opportunity.

In closing, it has become clear to us that nursing research, including student research, is a rare and precious resource in Malawi! It is imperative that it is focused upon the most pressing patient, family and community health and health system challenges. And, it is equally important that research teams engage with patients, families and communities, and with health system and government knowledge users, to help guide scholarship that produces practical and affordable solutions that can and will be taken up by the Malawi health system.

Martha E. (Beth) Horsburgh, RN, PhD has provided academic nursing and research leadership in three Canadian provinces. Her scholarship is typified by practical community and health system partnerships designed to tackle recurrent health challenges faced by patients, families and communities in Canada and around the world.

Joining the Academics Without Borders family of volunteers has enabled Beth and her colleague Dr. Pammla Petrucka, to work alongside the nursing faculty at Kamazu College of Nursing, University of Malawi, to address local health challenges through sustainable research partnerships.

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February 2, 2018 – Volunteer blog from Malawi

Celebrating a faculty member’s birthday.

Our second week in Malawi has been characterized by a hands-on approach to the ongoing research capacity building we are doing together here at Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN). Monday and Tuesday, we all rolled up our sleeves and worked through two days of research workshops with the faculty, some students and other invited stakeholders. Dr. Gertrude Mwalabu and a few of our other champions helped Dr. Pammla Petrucka and I lead the workshops using two research topics and their respective research teams as examples.

The first research team will carry out a program of research designed to better understand women’s community-based experiences in the year following surgical repair of an obstetrical fistula. The second team, led by Dr. Mwalabu, will carry out a program designed to understand the community-based experiences of young women and men (aged 19-24), as they work to meet their continuing health challenges related to HIV and HIV treatments, while also meeting the unique developmental challenges of young adulthood.

Research Interactive Workshop.

As the week progressed, Pammla and I split up, and each of us worked primarily with one of the research teams. KCN’s librarians, Kondwani and Patrick, supported the teams, and together each team worked to refine their research goals, objectives and research questions, while also identifying requirements for scoping reviews of the relevant published literature. As it turned out, each team identified two scoping reviews and two research studies that they planned to conduct together.

KCN librarian leads workshop group on through application of online query and use of search terms.

Using the grant format of the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, the teams developed the four grant outlines. Working together they also developed the on-line queries for the scoping reviews. All participants were actively engaged in decision-making regarding search terms and search parameters. And, as the on-line results of the queries came in, participants were able to see in real time how decisions regarding their search parameters influenced the quality and manageability of the resulting articles that were retrieved. As we worked through the grant proposals, participants saw how iterative the work was – as we worked back and forth to ensure that the research goals and objectives aligned perfectly with the research questions – and vice versa.

At the end of the week, one of the two groups declared its intention to continue work on its scoping reviews independently (i.e., without Pammla and I). The group members felt confident in applying their inclusion and exclusion data retrieval criteria, using the data extraction tool that they had developed. Dr. Petrucka and I are excited to review their progress with them next week.

Martha E. (Beth) Horsburgh, RN, PhD has provided academic nursing and research leadership in three Canadian provinces. Her scholarship is typified by practical community and health system partnerships designed to tackle recurrent health challenges faced by patients, families and communities in Canada and around the world.

Joining the Academics Without Borders family of volunteers has enabled Beth and her colleague Dr. Pammla Petrucka, to work alongside the nursing faculty at Kamazu College of Nursing, University of Malawi, to address local health challenges through sustainable research partnerships.

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January 26, 2018 – Volunteer blog from Malawi

Kamuzu College of Nursing’s Directorate of Nursing and Midwifery with Beth (on the right)

Our first week in Malawi has been very busy, and the Dean of Nursing, Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN), Dr. Gertrude Mwalabu, Dr. Pammla Petrucka and I feel that we have exceeded our expectations and plan of work!

Dean Gertrude and her husband kindly picked us up at the Lilongwe airport and saw that we were settled into our hotel accommodations. After a refreshing night’s sleep we had our first meeting with the Dean and other KCN formal and research leaders. We examined the four research pillars that KCN has identified: vulnerable populations; primary health care in Malawi; quality of care; and health reforms and innovations. Through kind and candid engagement, it was clear that KCN were seeking practical, sustainable assistance to build their research momentum. While some individuals and small groups had experienced success with individual grants and publications, all embraced the idea of working more effectively in research teams.

In this spirit, we worked with 11 of KCN’s Research Champions all day Tuesday. As senior research mentors to junior faculty and students, the champions included those in formal leadership roles and senior faculty members. While our work together included basics related to grantsmanship and publication, we moved beyond these to discuss principles of working effectively in teams; research mentorship; and engagement with knowledge users and policy makers and the patients/clients, families and communities where KCN hoped to impact the quality of care. We also identified opportunities to engage community “traditional leaders” – respected traditional knowledge keepers who play an important role in the health of Malawi communities where 80% of the population lives in the rural area.

Wednesday, the champions came together with junior faculty content experts. Using the grant format of the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, we worked together to develop the grant outline using one of KCNs areas of interest – the experience of care of women with obstetric fistulae. By the end of the day, the outline had been completed using two research questions that would permit the champions to divide their efforts and mentor two semi-separate research teams examining different aspects of the same population of interest – thus, taking advantage of the recruitment of one cohort of participants. Practicality, focus, efficiency, and sustainability were our mantra, as we recognized the need to use KCN’s precious research resources wisely! Next week we will be supporting the champions to offer a two-day research workshop to all of the KCN faculty, some graduate students, and community stakeholders.

Beth with the Nurses and Midwives Council of Malawi

For the remainder of our first week we worked with Dean Gertrude to further develop her already impressive stakeholder network. We listened carefully for stakeholders’ health knowledge priorities, while seeking and affirming their willingness to engage with and support KCN’s developing scholarship. We met with the National Director of Nursing and Midwifery Services and her leadership team, the Registrar and CEO of the Nurses and Midwives Council of Malawi and her team, and the three Directors of National Commission for Science and Technology. All are willing to support KCN’s developing research programs and they confirmed the importance of KCN’s four research pillars and team-based research model. Indeed, some of these stakeholders will now be joining us for the two-day training workshop next week!

Week one closed with a tour of the Lighthouse – a patient-centred, one-stop-service for individuals with HIV. With infrastructure support from Germany and operating funding from the Centres for Disease Control in the USA, this amazing facility has provided compassionate, quality care to this vulnerable population since 2001. This dedicated team of health professionals also provides corollary health services, so that almost all of the individual’s health needs can be met in the one location (the centre has adopted ‘one stop shop’ type of delivering health services).

Martha E. (Beth) Horsburgh, RN, PhD has provided academic nursing and research leadership in three Canadian provinces. Her scholarship is typified by practical community and health system partnerships designed to tackle recurrent health challenges faced by patients, families and communities in Canada and around the world.

Joining the Academics Without Borders family of volunteers has enabled Beth and her colleague Dr. Pammla Petrucka, to work alongside the nursing faculty at Kamazu College of Nursing, University of Malawi, to address local health challenges through sustainable research partnerships.

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Non-African partners influence research agenda – Study

This recent article in University World News describes research from a South African researcher examining the prevalence of collaboration between African and non-African researchers relative to inter-African collaborations.

The study also raises questions regarding the influence of such collaborations on the topics of research performed in Africa and the extent to which these topics reflect local priorities.

The concerns flagged in this report are consistent with the marked interest in building research capacity that we have seen in projects proposed by Academics Without Borders’ university partners in the majority world.

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Internationalization in Canada’s Universities: More than international students

AWB participated in a conference on Internationalization in Higher Education: New Trends and Future Directions for Ontario on November 3, 2017 in Toronto. At issue were all the ways that universities can connect their students and researchers with international universities, as well as recruiting international students to Ontario universities.

What does this have to do with AWB’s mission to enhance the capacity of universities in developing nations? One answer is that all of these activities generally benefit Ontario directly – bringing in high fee-paying students, and perhaps bringing highly-qualified immigrants to the country, whose prior training was paid for by another country.

Jonathan Rose, AWB Board Member and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, gave a presentation describing AWB’s method of giving back to universities in developing nations by providing host-driven projects supported by volunteer academics and professionals from around the world to improve or create quality academic or administrative programs in universities in those countries. He also pointed out the incredible cost-effectiveness of AWB’s approach and suggested that there ought to be better balance in the “taking” and “giving” towards developing nations.

Conference participants offered suggestions as to funding sources that might be tried. One interesting suggestion was to look for “outreach” funding that is often attached to research and other grants that are provided by federal and provincial governments. Another interesting general suggestion was to leverage AWB’s work to connect Canadian universities and developing universities together to work on global problems such as global warming, making use of the broader reach and information possible by having broadly distributed locations on the planet.

The other presentations were concerned with understanding established universities’ attitudes towards providing international experience and access to research at global universities; there is a clear trend towards more interest in this from both universities and employers. The federal government is active in promoting Canadian universities as destinations for students in foreign jurisdictions and would like to do even more promotion. Other presentations looked at this in-bound mobility of international students from a college perspective, which is distinct from that of universities. Another presentation gave an Australian perspective on in-bound students into countries – the pit-falls and successes of an ongoing Australian program. An interesting take-away here: that it almost never “pays” to set up remote units of universities within foreign jurisdictions.

The attendees were a broad range of academic researchers, administrators of colleges and universities, including those now responsible for in-bound and out-bound internationalization at these institutions, and Ontario government education ministry employees.

The conference was sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE) at OISE, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), and the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD).

AWB very much appreciated the opportunity to spread its message!

By Jonathan Rose, AWB Board of Directors and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Toronto

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The Ostrich and the Trend

A recent blog post was wrong about massive open online courses, Arshad Ahmad and Barbara Oakley write. MOOCs aren’t the promised panacea, but they are neither dangerous nor dead.

John Warner’s recent blog post “MOOCs Are Dead, What’s Next? Uh-Oh” makes a lot of sense. That is, if you’re an ostrich with its head in the sand.

From our perspective, MOOCs are providing great opportunities for nontraditional learners. And they’re fueling a new worldwide movement of lifelong learning. From no MOOCs not long ago, today’s 7,000 MOOCs sweep a landscape that includes 700 universities and 60 million participants worldwide. Coursera, one of the leading MOOC providers, just raised $64 million for an overall $800 million valuation, putting it in “unicorn territory” of $1 billion. Grow with Googlerecently invested $1 billion to provide digital skills, part of which will be through Coursera certificates. There are scores of other indicators of open learning that are experiencing significant growth.

How could anyone be so wrong?

In a sweeping indictment of the entire MOOC industry, Warner’s article focused on a few aspects of one company, Udacity, which ironically is breaking new ground in providing high-value, low-cost education in partnership with universities. We don’t fault the author, but rather a narrow perspective that reveals astonishing ignorance about what’s really going on.

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to clarify the authors’ arguments.)

To share our understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, here’s a bit about us. Barb is a co-instructor of Learning How to Learn, the largest, most popular MOOC of all time, with two million students. Arshad is vice provost for teaching and learning and director of McMaster University’s MacPherson Institute and the instructor for the Finance for Everyone MOOC. We are currently collaborating on a series of new MOOCs.

We are the first to admit that MOOCs are no longer the original utopian vehicle of free education for all. Modest fees have frequently, although not always, come into play. This is because online courses cost money to produce and run — although economies of scale mean that they can be taught for much lower costs than face-to-face classroom courses. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to describe current MOOCs as massive ongoing online courses. There’s lots of innovation going on under the hood.

Critics of new innovations will inevitably look prescient most of the time. It’s hard to make successful and sustainable innovations! Ebooks, for example, were a joke for decades — until suddenly they weren’t. If you’re reveling in lower ebook sales, take a gander at the prices. The popularity of ebooks makes most of them more expensive than paperbacks, despite their lower production costs.

MOOCs allow universities a bigger footprint in their core mission to spread learning. Look to the millions of refugees and displaced peoples in some of the world’s largest camps, or to adults with IQs of 70 or below who had previously been unable to attend college, or to students in rural Guatemala who want to learn about, say, neuroscience.

Universities had previously failed these groups. But through MOOCs, universities are giving them the education they’ve always wanted and needed. Recently, 17 institutions joined the University of Leiden by identifying MOOCs that help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Over all, MOOCs allow universities to reach an entirely new set of older, lifelong learners who are being served in ways that strengthen both academic values and the core mission of universities. It’s clear that the burgeoning MOOC movement is a healthy new venue for higher education worldwide.

From a broader context, the World Conference on Online Learning finds open learning to be a core form of course and program delivery in Canadian postsecondary education. The same is true in many other countries. As well, today’s learners are dramatically different from those in decades past. The idea that students evolve is not new. What is new are many students racking up too much debt to get a university degree. There is a compelling need for lower-cost alternatives. Also, learning with MOOCs means less time commuting, parking and navigating busy schedules and more time directly devoted to learning. MOOCs are part of the tool kit that can help to do both.

MOOCs offer tantalizing possibilities for economies of scale in college education, coupled with quality teaching and branding opportunities. This is partly why so many universities are heavily invested in MOOCs. Students at MIT who were offered the chance of “in-class” options chose the MOOC instead — and did better in it. As Class Central notes: “Students in the online version at MIT rated the course as significantly less stressful than their on-campus classes. At Georgia Tech, based on test scores, no statistically significant differences were observed.”

As for personalized learning, edX’s MicroMasters, IBM’s badges, Udacity’s nanodegrees and Coursera’s specializations are already making a mark. We also see solid growth in adaptive learning platforms — see, for example, the insightful Inside Higher Ed article “Could Georgia Tech Use Online to Shave Time Off Bachelor’s Degrees?

Over all, MOOCs are neither dangerous nor dead. They offer ways for students to keep their knowledge fresh as they mature and go into the work force, raise families and navigate a marketplace increasingly disrupted by technology.

It’s easy to criticize MOOCs if you’ve never created or taken one. If you’re an educator and you haven’t taken one, it’s time to jump in the water. Go ahead, look over the Class Central listings and find the most interesting MOOC you can — either on your own subject or any topic you’ve always wanted to learn about. See if you might get some ideas to improve your day-to-day teaching, and enjoy the easy opportunity to both learn something new and up your game as an instructor. You’ll be glad you did.

By Arshad Ahmad, AWB-USF Board of Directors and vice provost for teaching & learning, McMaster University, and director, McMaster University’s MacPherson Institute, and Barbara Oakley, professor of engineering, Oakland University.
Reposted from an October 25, 2017 blog at Inside Higher Ed


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AWB-USF Reception at McGill Faculty Club on October 19, 2017

Sixty people from Montreal’s academic and broader communities attended AWB-USF’s reception at the McGill Faculty Club on October 19, 2017.

It was a terrific opportunity for them to learn more about the organization and especially to hear about the experiences of Dr. Keyna Bracken, recently returned from Aceh, Indonesia, where she led a project to improve maternal health in rural Indonesia. Journalist Lysiane Gagnon was our esteemed emcee for the event, introducing the speakers who also included outgoing Executive Director Steven Davis and AWB-USF University Network Manager Dominique Van De Maele.

The new Executive Director Greg Moran was introduced.  He assumed the leadership role on October 21 having spent two years on its Board of Directors.  He joined the organization after a recent posting as Provost at Aga Khan University in Nairobi and following a long career as a professor and university administrator.

It was an engaged crowd with lots of questions for the speakers, and people enjoyed the chance to mingle and enjoy the delicious appetizers and beverages provided.

Read an article in The Montrealer about the event:

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Academics Without Borders

Academics Without Borders is a volunteer driven NGO, implementing vital, practical projects to strengthen higher education in developing countries so that they have the skilled professionals, such as nurses, teachers, doctors, engineers and computer scientists to build a brighter future. This helps to improve healthcare, education, inclusion and infrastructure.

“The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed” – at least this is what a large Japanese wireless provider believes (NTT DoCoMo, Japan).

Academics Without Borders (AWB) aims to better distribute the future through strengthening higher education in the developing world. Our mission is to assist academic institutions in developing countries in building capacity in higher education so that they can train their own experts and conduct research to assist in their development. We do this by designing projects that connect a volunteer expert academic from Canada and elsewhere in the developed world who then shares their expertise and knowledge with our partner institutions in the developing world. Through volunteers we contribute to the development of our partner institutions and ultimately the country in which they are located.

Is knowledge important for development?

Sustainable development, or alternatively, the development of sustainability is critically dependent on knowledge. “Fifty years ago the Republic of Korea and Ghana had the same income per capita whereas by the early 1990s, Korea’s income per capita was six times that of Ghana – 50 per cent of that difference was due to Korea’s greater success in acquiring and using knowledge” according to the World Bank. Today, GDP per capita is 20 times greater in Korea than in Ghana. Korea’s rapid and sustained economic development is often attributed to, at least in part, the application of technology and science. The country is often used as a textbook example of how government policy and well educated researchers can change the national economic trajectory in very positive ways.

AWB focuses on individuals, but we rely on a multiplier effect for broader impact. AWB’s volunteers work closely with colleagues at our partner universities, upgrading their knowledge and skills, so that they can share their knowledge with students and do the necessary research for development. This train-the-trainer approach ensures we reach the maximum number of people with limited resources, cascading help to local communities. With projects originating from our partner institutions, we can address local needs accurately. We work across all disciplines and establish long-term relationships with our partners.

AWB is implementing vital, practical projects to strengthen higher education in developing countries so they have the skilled professionals, such as nurses, teachers, doctors, engineers and computer scientists to build a brighter future. This helps to improve healthcare, education, inclusion and infrastructure.

Our objectives

  • To assist countries to build the critical mass of professionals; doctors, nurses, engineers, agriculturists, educators, administrators, managers, and entrepreneurs necessary to build a sustainable society for continued human development.
  • To ensure that the professionals needed by developing countries are educated in their home countries.
  • To work with partner institutions in developing countries to improve the quality of higher education so that professionals have the skills that they need to improve their communities.

Our volunteers

Highly trained volunteers are the foundation of our programme. Experts in their respective fields, volunteers travel to our partner universities in developing countries, improving teaching and research skills, introducing new courses, revising curriculum, upgrading administrative support and services, and even helping to establish new universities.

With placements varying from a week to a year, volunteers offer their time for free and our partner institutions contribute as best they can to the cost of their postings.

Where we work

AWB has projects throughout the developing world. Since 2009, we have completed over 90 projects with more than 100 volunteers in 17 countries, including some of the most economically and sometimes politically challenged in the world, such as Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Namibia, Nepal, Rwanda, Uganda, and Sierra Leone. AWB has established ongoing relationships with several institutions and is committed to working with them for as long as they request assistance.


Who are the beneficiaries of this rising tide of knowledge in a previously knowledge-poor area? People of local origin, who gain global connections through AWB and a strengthened understanding of how to generate, transmit, and store knowledge. New curricula, course content, and teaching and learning materials can be kept up-to-date through local initiatives as well as through electronic connections, both nationally and internationally with knowledge-rich institutions in the developed world.

Local undergraduate and graduate students benefit from modern, relevant and high quality courses and ancillary services delivered by local people who participate in the AWB programme. These students will ultimately graduate and contribute to regional development in areas such as health and education, food production, resource management, and environmental protection. The noted educator Kurt Hahn CBE, creator of Outward Bound and the United World Colleges among other things, is credited with saying ‘as individuals we cannot change the world but we can create students who want to’ and in many instances, will.

Faculty and support staff are connected to colleagues at knowledge and well resource western institutions, providing access to information and materials that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. Our partners often build solid linkages to the outside world and the rising tide of knowledge.

As importantly, Canadian and other developed country university faculty and staff have benefited from the opportunity to work in a different culture and a rich environment that would not otherwise be easily available. For those who have never worked in the developing world it is often a transformational experience that also enhances their ability to strengthen their teaching in increasingly diverse classrooms at home and conduct globally relevant research. These individuals, along with their developing country colleagues, maintain a bi-directional flow of knowledge that benefits the world.

By Dr. Nello Angerilli, University of Waterloo, and AWB-USF Board of Directors
Reposted from the Association of Commonwealth Universities


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