The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia

sieg2006.jpgPhoto: Summer Institute in Economic Geography (SIEG) participants during a field trip to Milwaukee in 2006. SIEG was developed with support from the WUN, Economic Geography, the NSF, the ESRC, and several other sources.

The recently reported establishment of the International Forum of Public Universities (Forum international des universités publiques) which arose out of the 125th anniversary celebrations at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) in 2004, is a reminder of the growth of international university alliances/associations/consortia in recent years. The rhetoric is that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, universities in different parts of the world need to be closely linked so as to reap the best benefits for education and research.

One of the challenges of making such university alliances work is the lack of clarity of intention, and the lack of a clear articulation of how such alliances, often formed from the top by senior university administrators, can achieve the stated objectives. In almost every new alliance, establishing research partnerships and collaboration among member universities is said to be a priority. Are alliances really an effective way to develop research collaboration though? Member universities that are chosen to be part of an alliance are often chosen for political reasons (“political” in the most expansive of its meanings). They may be chosen because they are thought to be “research powerhouses”. But different universities have different areas of research strength, and university administrators sitting together to decide an area/s among their universities for research collaboration can be quite artificial. Such alliances can then at best facilitate meetings and workshops among researchers, but the collaborative sparks must come from the ground. Throwing a group of people together once or twice and asking that they produce huge grant applications to support collaborative research is not likely to happen. Those with the responsibility of developing alliances, however, will be anxious to show results, and sometimes, just the act of bringing researchers together is hardly sufficient result.

If university alliances are to be about collaboration and partnership to enhance student mobility and learning with “equal” participation from partners, the relative likeness of institutions is important (note the wise words of the Bard here: “That every like is not the same”). The confusion of intent can have implications for membership. Should alliances have geographical representation for legitimacy (refrains of “how can we call ourselves a truly global/international alliance if we are not represented thus?”)? The clarification of intent is important to guide membership decisions, for the profile of the consortia can look quite different whether one is thinking of extending assistance in capacity building to fellow members of an alliance, or whether one is thinking of collaborative teaching, frequent student movement, and in the extreme, joint degrees.

Lily Kong

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Editor’s note: international consortia include the ASEAN University Network (AUN), the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), Universitas 21 (U21), and the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). People at GlobalHigherEd are associated with several of these consortia, and the blog’s development has been partially supported by the WUN. Note, however, that Lily Kong (Vice-President (University & Global Relations) & Vice-Provost (Education), National University of Singapore) is not in a WUN member university.

In the interest of furthering thinking about the nature of international consortia, a multi-disciplinary group of undergraduate and graduate students from Economic Geography 510 (at UW-Madison) recently completed a course report titled Markets & Mobility: The Rise, Rhetoric, and Reality of Inter-University Consortia. The 71 pp. report, which they worked very hard on, can be downloaded here consortiafinal3.pdf (thanks to the generosity of Kristy Lynn Brown, Andrew Epstein, Luthien Lee Niland, Kathryn Wood Rudasill, Joanne Shu-en Tay, and Katie Zaman). I know they would welcome feedback on their views here (in conjunction with a response to Lily Kong’s entry), or directly via email (their contact details are on the cover of the report…CC their prof too OK!). Kris Olds

7 thoughts on “The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia

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