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In my opinion

How to address the international agenda

Universities’ international agenda, much broader than in the past, needs to involve many kinds of university staff.


A conference on international trends in higher education for senior university administrators took place in Ottawa during the last week in June, drawing speakers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, China, the United States and France, as well as Canada. The conference, called “Canadian universities in a global context: a dialogue on international trends and opportunities,” was convened by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the University of Alberta and chaired by Carl Amrhein, provost and vice-president academic at U of A.

While most of the conference wasn’t open to the media, a summing up about half-way through by Baroness Diana Warwick was made available to University Affairs magazine. Diana Warwick is a member of the U.K. House of Lords (appointed a life peer in 1999), a former Labour Party MP, current chair of the Human Tissue Authority, and a former CEO of Universities UK (until 2009). These are her remarks to the participants.

There is a theme that has run like a thread through all the sessions of our conference. Universities in Canada, just like universities across the world, are increasingly challenged by politicians, taxpayers and – not least – their students across a whole range of issues.

Is their historical role still relevant when higher education is becoming a mass system? Indira [Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta], this morning referred to the Humboldt model, yet in the U.K. certainly it would be difficult to say that all universities adhered to that model.

Are universities relevant to public policy? The tensions of getting too close to government are always near the surface, yet our governments expect something for the money they put in – even when, in the U.K., government funding forms only a small proportion of total income.

Are universities enhancing the career prospects of their students? It is clear that students (and their parents) are becoming increasingly demanding about this, but academic staff are often affronted that this should be part of their teaching approach.

Are universities increasing social mobility? At one level, certainly, and as we heard this morning, that is one of the most important outcomes of a university education. But again there are tensions when governments want explicit steps taken to encourage the disadvantaged. In the U.K., the use of contextual data to accept students with lower qualifications is still a contested area, even though the evidence is that such students do at least as well as, if not better than, their well-qualified counterparts.

Yet despite these inherent tensions, confidence in universities seems to know no bounds. Because, at the same time and despite cuts in public funding across most jurisdictions, universities are being asked or compelled to take on a variety of new or unfamiliar roles: their excellent research should be much more closely aligned with the international economic competitiveness of their countries, their intellectual powerhouses should be fuelling the engines of public policy, their academics should be out there supporting their local communities and civil society. Nigel Thrift [a speaker and president of the University of Warwick] has called this “a kaleidoscope of constituencies.”

Yet in my experience in the U.K., and from what I have seen elsewhere, there is a real dearth of fundamental thinking about how the academy is changing and how the academic community should be responding to, or even embracing, these changes and challenges.

Every system is on the hunt for world rankings. It is intriguing that although university leaders – to a woman and man – protest that league tables mean and measure nothing, they nonetheless quote any table in which their own university does well!

If the U.K. is a measure, the difficulty of balancing competitiveness with collaboration is still very obvious. Institutions that want to thrive now have to compete both for scarce resources and for students, who are being much more selective in their choice of study. So universities are looking at ways in which they can work together or even merge in order to develop the critical mass necessary.

The funding for research has already become highly concentrated, and the long-held belief in the inter-relationship of teaching and research as a fundamental tenet of “the university” is clearly being undermined.

While our [U.K.] government seems keen to protect the science budget (even during the current financial difficulties), the funding for teaching is now largely in the hands of students rather than the public funding council. People talk of the “squeezed middle” of universities that are not in the major research league but are also having to compete hard for well qualified students.

Yet one of the key messages that has come across in our sessions so far is the desirability, in fact the need for collaboration across boundaries, if the real benefits of internationalism are to be gained. And the international agenda is no longer restricted to faculty members, but involves legal staff, administrators, library staff – a much wider range of players than in the past. So, interestingly, there may be an example in the international agenda which could encourage a greater emphasis on collaboration at home.

And finally, the issue of how you engage the faculty in the international agenda seems to keep rearing its head. A lot of emphasis on support mechanisms, change agents, ambassadors, the need for the solid commitment of the institution, but underlying all this is the variable reaction of staff and a lack of buy- in. So, finding motivational tools and incentives (usually financial) becomes a key issue, as does the need for removal of any perceived barriers to embracing the international agenda.


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