The temporal rhythm of academic life in a globalizing era

The globalization of higher education and research is associated with a wide variety of shifts and changes, many of which (e.g., branch campuses) are debated about in relatively intense fashion. Other aspects of this transition, though, receive little attention, including the temporal rhythm of academic life; a rhythm being simultaneously maintained, extended, reduced, and bracketed.

In many ways not much has changed for we continue to follow a seasonal rhythm: the build up to term, the fall and spring cycles (punctuated by brief breaks of variable lengths), and then a longer summer ‘break’. When I was an undergraduate my summers were associated with work at fish canneries, mineral prospecting, and drill camps (throughout British Columbia and the Yukon) – the legacy of living amidst a resource-based staples economy.

Summers during graduate student life in Canada and the UK were focused on research, with some holiday time. And summers now, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US (pictured to the right, at dusk), are associated with a mix of research and writing time, university service, and holiday time with my family. But the real temporal anchor is the twin semester (or quarters for some) cycle split by a summer break.

Scaling up, the rhythm of institutional life follows aspects of this seasonal cycle, albeit with noteworthy national and institutional variations. For example, research administrators kick into higher gear in the US and UK (where I am a visiting professor) during the summer and winter breaks before important national funding council deadlines, yet even research active university libraries shut down for much of the summer in France for the annual holiday cycle. Human resources managers everywhere get busy when new faculty and staff arrive in the July/August and December/January windows of time. We all welcome and say goodbye to many of our students at key windows of time throughout the year, whilst the term/semester/quarter cycle shapes, in bracing ways, the rhythms of contract (sessional) lecturers.

In an overall sense, then, it is this year-to-year seasonal rhythm, with fuzzy edges, that continues to propel most of us forward.

The globalization of higher education and research, though, is also extending, reducing, and bracketing our senses of time, as well as the structural rhythmic context in which we (as faculty members, students, and staff) are embedded.

For example, research on key ‘global challenges’ – something a variety of contributors to GlobalHigherEd have been reflecting about, and something international consortia (e.g., the Worldwide Universities Network) are seeking to facilitate – is inevitably long-term in nature. This is in part because of the nature of the issues being addressed, but also because of the practicalities and complications associated with developing international collaborative research teams. This said, government funding councils are resolutely national in orientation — they have a very hard time matching up budgetary and review cycles across borders and tying them up to the agendas of large international collaborative teams (CERN and a few other exemplars aside). So while research agendas and relationships need to be long-term in nature, we have really yet to develop the infrastructure to support a longer-term temporal rhythm when it comes to international collaborative research on ‘global challenges’.

Long-term thinking is also evident in the strategic thinking being undertaken by the European Commission regarding the role of universities in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), as well as the European Research Area (ERA), in the context of the Lisbon agenda. Related forms of long-term thinking are evident in a whole host of agencies in the US regarding ‘non-traditional’ security matters regarding issues like dependency upon foreign graduates (e.g., ‘the coming storm’), comparative ‘research footprints’, and the like.

Moving the other way, the reduction and/or bracketing of temporal rhythms is most obvious in the higher education media, as well as the for-profit world of higher education, or in the non-profit world once endowments are created, and bonds are sold.

On the media front, for example, higher education outlets like US-based Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the UK-based Times Higher Education, are all active on a daily basis now with website updates, Twitter feeds, and once- to twice-daily email updates. The unhurried rhythms of our pre-digital era are long gone, and the pick-up in pace might even intensify.

On the for-profit and ratings front, stock value and revenue is tracked with increased precision, quarterly and annual reports are issued, and university data from networks of acquired universities are bundled together, while fund managers track every move of for-profit education firms. Interesting side effects can emerge, including replicant or Agent Smith-like dynamics where multiple offerings of honorary degrees to Nelson Mandela emerge within one network of universities controlled by the for-profit Laureate International Universities.

Ratings agencies such as Moody’s are also developing increased capacity to assess the financial health of higher education institutions, with a recent drive, for example, to “acquire liquidity data to provide a more direct and accurate gauge of the near-term liquidity standing” of each rated institution (on this issue see ‘Moody’s Probes Colleges on Cash’, Inside Higher Ed, 16 June 2010).

Or take the case of national governments, which are beginning to develop the capacity to track, analyse and communicate about international student flow vis a vis export earnings (see recent data below from Australian Education International’s Research Snapshot, May 2010).

This bracketing of time, which takes place in the Australian case on a combined monthly/annual cycle so as to enhance strategic planning and risk assessment at institutional, state, national, and international scales, has become both more thorough and more regular.

These are but a few examples of the new rhythms of our globalizing era. Assuming you agree with me that the temporal rhythm of academic life is being simultaneously maintained, extended, reduced, and bracketed, who has the capability to adjust rhythms, for what purposes, and with what effects?

I’ll explore aspects of this reworking of temporal rhythms in a subsequent entry on the global rankings of universities; a benchmarking ‘technology’ (broadly defined) that bundles together universities around the globe into annual cycles of data requests, data provision, and highly mediatized launches.

Kris Olds

A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)

Editors’ note: this guest entry has been kindly contributed by Nigel Thrift (pictured to the right), Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick, UK.

Professor Thrift, who has written one other guest entry for GlobalHigherEd (see ‘University viewpoint: the University of Warwick on ‘The challenge of global education and research’‘, 6 November 2007), has been very active in contributing to debates about the globalization of higher education and research. See for example, his role in the 2008-2009 UK-US Study Group that produced Higher Education and Collaboration in a Global Context (which GlobalHigherEd profiled in ‘Higher education and collaboration in a global context: a new UK/US (Atlantic) perspective‘, 29 July 2009). Also see his recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (‘The world needs global research cooperation urgently, and now‘, 14 February 2010), and his introduction (and Warwick’s role, with support from Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation) in the innovative and high impact Warwick Commission on International Financial Reform: In Praise of Unlevel Playing Fields (November 2009).

Nigel Thrift’s contribution is indeed ‘a question’; one that we encourage other ‘architects’ of higher education and research institutional reform to respond to (via <>).  Some have elsewhere – see for example, Indira V. Samarasekera‘s (President, University of Alberta) piece in Nature (‘Universities need a new social contract‘, 12 November 2009), or Aarhus University‘s convening role (with the support of Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, Rector) in the Beyond Kyoto: Addressing the Challenges of Climate Change event held in March 2009. But we are seeking, via GlobalHigherEd, to ratchet up attention on this issue. We are accepting responses through to April 2011, one year from now.

To get the ball rolling Professor Peter N. Stearns, Provost, George Mason University, will respond this coming Monday.  Our thanks to both Nigel Thrift and Peter Stearns for grappling with this issue; one that generates no easy answers but is emerging as a key strategic development issue in universities, higher education associations, funding councils, ministries, etc., around the world.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson


A Question

I have a question and it goes like this. Just suppose we are in a period in which the future of human life on the planet is seriously threatened – by climate change and all the negative economic, social and cultural processes that attend it – then are the world’s universities really doing all they could to mitigate and even head off the risks? So far as I’m concerned, it’s a rhetorical question. The answer is – not really. Good, maybe, but not good enough.

Should we be bothered about our role will be in what is often called the long emergency? I think so, and for at least three reasons. First off, it could be argued that universities are the primary intellectual fire-fighters in the current situation, not least because that responsibility has increasingly been abrogated by so many other actors. Second, the vast majority of universities have always – quite rightly – taken their ethical responsibilities to the world seriously, though it would be difficult to argue that universities have always ensured that they have acted in alignment with their beliefs, or indeed adequately translated their knowledge base. Third, if the situation is really so serious, perhaps it could be argued that we are now on a kind of war footing and need to act accordingly.

Now, universities face all kinds of difficulties in living up to these roles and responsibilities, of that I am sure. To begin with, they may be global public goods but they are still largely funded and regulated by nation states who, not surprisingly, tend to see them as national assets to be deployed according to national priorities. Equally, they are often in competition with one another: sometimes, it can seem as if their chief raison d’etre is position in the league tables. To complete the triptych of problems, it is still too often assumed that scientific discovery, which nearly always takes place as part of a network of actors distributed across the globe, is the province of an individual actor anchored in a particular place: think only of the system of prizes and awards.

But, if the problems are on the scale that is often now foreseen surely these difficulties do not constitute insuperable problems. What, then, is to be done? I think we should take our cue from the actions of our individual investigators who nowadays exist through a co-operative web of contacts which are automatically international in character. If they can cooperate so easily, surely universities can too. There are signs of progress, of course. National research councils are beginning to link up their research, and not just through the use of large facilities. Universities are fitfully internationalizing though, with the best will in the world, idealistic reasons have not always figured prominently. What I am suggesting is that this business of scientific cooperation now needs to go on apace and perhaps even as one of the conditions of the survival of the species. The stakes may be that high. To put it another way, nation states may not have been able to get their act together at Copenhagen but surely Universities – supposedly engines of reason – can.

Assuming you agree with the proposition, the question I raise is: are universities optimally organized to address the fundamental ‘global challenges’ that exist, and at the pace these challenges deserved to be addressed? If not, what should be done about this organizational-ethical dilemma?

Nigel Thrift

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


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