University associations and the enhancement of capabilities for a globalizing era

prague21march20091I recently returned from Prague, where I attended the 5th annual conference of the European University Association (EUA).  It was very well run by the EUA, professionally hosted by Charles University (Universitas Carolina), and the settings (Charles University, Municipal Hall, Prague Castle) were breathtaking.

My role was to contribute to EUA deliberations on the theme of Global Outreach – Europe’s Interaction with the Wider World.  I’ll develop a summary version of my presentation for GlobalHigherEd in the next week once I catch up on some duties here in Madison.

Some aspects of the meeting discussions complemented some recent news items (see below), as well as our 9 March entry ‘Collapsing branch campuses: time for some collective action?’ The thread that ties them all together is capability.

At a broad regional scale, the EUA, and its many partners, have had the capability to bring the 46 country European Higher Education Area (EHEA) into being. Of course the development process is very uneven, but the sweep of change over the last decade, brought to life from the bottom (i.e. the university-level) up, is really quite astonishing, regardless of whether you agree with the aims or not.

Now, capabilities in the case of the EHEA, relates to the capacity of universities, respective national ministries, the EU, and select stakeholders to work towards crafting an “overarching structure”, with associated qualifications frameworks, that incorporates these elements:

  • Three Degree Cycle
  • The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)
  • The Diploma Supplement
  • Quality Assurance
  • Recognition [of qualifications]
  • Joint Degrees

Ambitious, yes, but the distributed capabilities have clearly existed to create the EHEA, as will become abundantly clear next month when the Ministerial Conference is held at Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium.

columbiauCapabilities have also been evident this week in the case of Columbia University, which just announced that it was opening up a network of “Global Centers”, with the first two located in Beijing and Amman. As the press release puts it:

While some U.S. universities have built new branch campuses and degree-granting schools abroad, Columbia is taking a different path. Columbia Global Centers will provide flexible regional hubs for a wide range of activities and resources intended to enhance the quality of research and learning at the University and around the world. The goal is to establish a network of regional centers in international capitals to collaboratively address complex global challenges by bringing together scholars, students, public officials, private enterprise, and innovators from a broad range of fields.

“When social challenges are global in their consequences, the intellectual firepower of the world’s great universities must be global in its reach,” said Kenneth Prewitt, vice president of Columbia Global Centers and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs. “Columbia’s network of Global Centers will bring together some of the world’s finest scholars to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Prewitt had this to say:

“We’re trying to figure out how to go from a series of very strong bilateral relationships and take that to the next phase, not replace it,” said Kenneth Prewitt, director of Columbia’s Office of Global Centers.

As the world becomes more interconnected, many of the most pressing issues of the day are best approached not within a bilateral framework, but by groups of scholars and researchers from diverse backgrounds bringing their expertise to bear in novel ways, Mr. Prewitt said.

See a brief slideshow on the Amman center here, and download the inaugural program launch poster here


The Columbia story is worth being viewed in conjunction with our previous entry on ‘Collapsing branch campuses’ (an indicator of limited capability), ‘NYU Abu Dhabi: realizing the global university?’ (an indicator of strong capability, albeit enabled by the oil-induced largesse of Abu Dhabi), and a series of illuminating entries by Lloyd Armstrong in Changing Higher Education on the Columbia story and some associated entries on ‘modularity’ in higher education and research:

As Armstrong notes:

“Modularity” is an ill-defined concept as used in discussing globalization of the modern corporation, in that it may mean very different things to different organizations at different times.  Generally, however, it has to do with breaking a process into separable blocks (modules) that have sufficiently well defined inputs and outputs that the blocks can later be fit together and  recombined into a complete process. “Globalization” then has to do with accessing resources world-wide to produce those modules in the most effective and efficient manner.

Now, in some future entries we will be exploring the uses and limitations of concepts like scale, networks, chains, modularity, and so on.  But what I’d like to do now, is think in a n-1 way, and beg the question: do universities have the capability to think beyond their comfort zones (e.g., about modularity; about academic freedom in distant territories; about the strategic management of multi-sited operations; about the latest advances in technology for capacity building abroad or international collaborative teaching; about double and joint degrees; about the implications of regionalism and interregionalism in higher education and research), especially when their resources are constrained and ‘mission creep’ is becoming a serious problem?

Most universities, I would argue, do not. Columbia clearly does, as does NYU, but few universities have the material, political, and relational (as in social and cultural capital) resources that these elite private universities do.

Perhaps the EHEA phenomenon, the role of the EUA in shaping it, can generate some lessons about the critically important dimension of capability, especially when universities are not resourced like a Columbia.

euaplenary1The framing and implementation of ambitious university visions to internationalize, to globalize, at a university scale, arguably needs to be better linked to the resources and viewpoints provided by associations and consortia, at least the better staffed and well run ones. There are other options, of course, including private consultants, ad-hoc thematic expert groups, and so on, but the enhancement of capabilities is evident in the case of the EUA, especially with respect to the construction of the EHEA on behalf of its constituent members, the creation of fora for the sharing of best practices, and the creation of new institutions (e.g., the EUA Council for Doctoral Education). It might be worth noting, too, that the EUA clearly benefits from having the European Commission‘s backing on regarding a variety of initiatives, and that the Commission is a key stakeholder in the Bologna Process.

The other side of this equation is, though, the need for universities to actually engage with, support, feed, draw in, and respect their associations. Given the denationalization process, associations and consortia are also being stretched. Some are having to cope with resource limitations vis a vis mission creep, and the uneven involvement of certain types of member universities. I might be wrong, but it seems as if some sub-national, national and regional associations around the world have a challenging time drawing in, and therefore representing, their better off universities.  This is a problematic situation for it has the potential to generate ‘middling zone’ outcomes at a collective level.

Yet, is it not in the interest of higher education systems to have very strong, effective, and powerful associations of universities? And if the elite universities in any system do not look out for their system, versus take the university view, or a segmented view (e.g., a selective association or consortia), the broader context in which elite universities operate may become less conducive to operate within.

euasummaryThe globalization of higher education and research is generating unprecedented challenges for universities, and higher education systems, around the world. This means we need think through the evolving higher education landscape, and the role of associations and consortia in it, for the vast majority of universities simply cannot act like Columbia University.

If capabilities are limited, then associations and consortia have the capacity to enable reflective thinking, and broader and more powerful university voices to emerge.  Indeed, it might also be worth thinking through how all of the world’s associations and consortia relate (or not) to each other, and what might be done to transform what is really a national/international architecture into a more global architecture; one associated with strategic inter-association and inter-consortia dialogue and sustained collective action.

And in a future entry, I’ll explore how some universities are seeking to enhance capabilities via the creation of new joint centers and experimental laboratories with distant universities and non-university stakeholders. While this process has to be managed carefully, the bringing together of complementary resources (e.g., human and otherwise) on campuses can unsettle, though with positive effects, and thereby build capabilities.

But for now, I’ll close off by highlighting the International Association of Universities’ (IAU) 3rd Global Meeting of Associations of Universities (GMAIII) in Guadalajara, Mexico, 20-22 April 2009. This event is shaping up to provide plenty of food for fodder regarding the capabilities issue, as well as many other topics. University associations are being tasked, and are tasking themselves, to enhance capabilities for a globalizing era. Yet, for many, this is relatively uncharted terrain.

Kris Olds

2 thoughts on “University associations and the enhancement of capabilities for a globalizing era

  1. Pingback: The Global Bologna Policy Forum: a forum for the emerging global higher education and research space? « GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: Article Preview: Globalizing Education « Ramble While You Ramble

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