University viewpoint: the University of Warwick on ‘The challenge of global education and research’

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of ‘viewpoints’ from university leaders on issues related to the globalization of higher education, and university strategy vis a vis the changing global higher education landscape. Today’s entry is by Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick, UK. The University recently launched its Vision 2015 strategy, and Professor Thrift was also interviewed about related issues in the Guardian and the Independent. Finally, please note that this guest entry should be seen in the context of GlobalHigherEd‘s role in co-organizing the October 2007 Global Public University Forum (with Stephen Toope, President, University of British Columbia), and our recent entries on Duke University and international consortia of universities.

The challenge of global education and research

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As the readers of this blog are well aware, universities across the world are facing up to the challenge of globalising trends in student demand and research funding by internationalising their operations – both at home and abroad. The challenges are easier to meet ‘at home’ where well-established modes of mobility and diversity can quickly be accelerated. This important work – opening our institutional cultures to worlds beyond the local and national cultures in which universities as institutional presences are suspended – is both a challenging and long-term endeavour. But domestic policies on internationalisation, safely judged within local confines, is the relatively easy bit: ‘internationalisation light’, in other words, or diversity very much on our own terms.

Abroad, the challenges are altogether of a different magnitude and are much more compelling. Research-intensive universities have a crucial role to play in the knowledge economies of the global era – driving innovation, creating sustainable change, educating global citizens, and tackling in collaborative endeavours the problems that bedevil our planet. Yet today very few universities can claim either a global presence or possess the sets of relationships internationally that allow them – their staff and students – to be as effective as we will need universities to be in coming decades. Collaborative higher education provision is delivered in many ways: branch campuses set up by universities in other countries – often in other continents; distance and e-learning; franchising and validation. Some enterprising universities are developing branch campuses overseas or contributing resource to the emergence of conglomerated research centres. Yet others are clubbing together in consortia or networks, gingerly engaging in benchmarking exercises and, it should be admitted, the promise of some genuinely joint provision.

These developments surely herald a new era of international activity – but none of us should underestimate the obstacles that impede trans-national collaboration. The simple truth is that, to date, universities have not become great by collaborating with each other. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet in order to establish and maintain the greatest contribution to society in future years, universities now need to take a lead from what a small cadre of leading academics have been doing for a few decades now: establishing networks of deep and lasting collaborations across national boundaries, sharing resources and knowledge, to tackle the issues and problems of the new global age.

If institutions are to position themselves to enable more trans-national research we need a model that doesn’t just reproduce a ‘home’ institution on foreign soil.

Before I arrived at Warwick in the summer of 2006, the University had definitively rejected in 2005 the development of an overseas campus (in Singapore) and today we are thinking about ways in which we can collaborate internationally – but on more level terms. There must be equal partnerships, sharing the creation of knowledge rather than imposing a hierarchical framework. We must envisage a model of inter-university co-operation very different from those which by now might be described as ‘traditional’, consisting of the informal networks that leading academics must of necessity maintain to remain relevant and cutting-edge.

We are addressing this at Warwick as part of our recently announced strategy outlining a vision for Warwick between now and 2015. As part of that vision we intend to set up an international quarter on the Warwick campus, consisting of several overseas research universities. Rather than seeking a single international partner for this endeavour our international quarter will offer a number of universities from all the continents of the world a genuine physical base at the University. It will allow Warwick to interact on a day-to-day basis with not just one but several other research and teaching cultures from around the globe. This will enable us to build up genuine joint research, while offering extended opportunities to both staff and students. This is a radical move for a UK university, opening up new possibilities for international collaboration.

And yet, this too, does not go quite far enough – we need a new global knowledge infrastructure to encourage research, development and education. Global education isn’t just about where students go to learn and the methods by which we teach them: it’s about what they learn and how equipped they are at the end of their degrees to enter the marketplace. Academic knowledge is no longer enough. We need to think seriously about developing our students’ employability, equipping them with the skills they need to succeed – and which their countries need to flourish – for the world of work.

For too long, I think, universities have operated only as national servants to national ambitions. Today, however, it is only by ‘going global’ and opening their doors to genuinely deep and lasting collaborations that universities can meet the challenges of globalisation and tackle the big issues such as energy, global security and the global environment. This requires collaboration and partnerships, especially in research. This is simply practical commonsense – this kind of vital research infrastructure cannot be set up in one university or even in one country. Indeed a failure to go global will in itself fail to deliver on national ambitions. A cluster of globally focused universities will be vital to any nation wishing to compete globally.

Research in universities is, and should be, very different in nature from that pursued elsewhere – in corporate organisations, for example. Universities work at the limits of predictability; the unforeseeable discovery, genuine invention rather than mere innovation, the structured risk-taking that is essential to good science and good business. Universities work at the highest level, for the global public good. And this sort of work is essentially co-operative. Often, researchers work more with colleagues in other universities than with those in their own university, often in complex networks stretching across the globe. To protect and invigorate the co-operative intellectual atmosphere we must work towards enhanced and innovative forms of co-operation between universities.

We at Warwick have already launched one initiative to build such co-operative international research networks. This year we created a “Warwick Commission”, led by the Hon. Pierre Pettigrew the former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs PC,. The Commission brings together a team of researchers from around the world, led by the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, to examine the global trading system and make recommendations about its future shape and direction. The Commission is taking evidence from a wide range of experts from around the globe including: politicians, pressure groups, practitioners, academics, lawyers and others. The Commission’s final report will be presented in Geneva in December 2007. This will be the first in a series of commissions hosted by Warwick.

The challenge facing us all is to step outside of our national boundaries, and the established intellectual framework of regions and statehood, to see that the common good can best be served when we collaborate as equal partners in global education and research.

Nigel Thrift

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5 thoughts on “University viewpoint: the University of Warwick on ‘The challenge of global education and research’

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