A networked university is a truly global one

Large-scale, transdisciplinary networks of universities represent the next phase of internationalisation, says Patrick Prendergast 

June 22, 2019
Interconnected/networked countries on globe
Source: iStock

Not so long ago, the recruitment of large numbers of international students was regarded as the hallmark of a global university. The thinking was that the more international students a university had, the more global that university was. The same thinking saw the establishment of international campuses in Asia or the Middle East as the crowning achievement of the parent institution’s globalisation policy. 

University mergers across continents were mooted and perhaps they will still come. In the meantime, an alternative model is becoming increasingly popular – the networked university. Historically, of course, universities always had networks championed by individual researchers or departments for specific scholarly and scientific purposes. However, the past few decades have seen the creation of large regional associations and networks.  

What are the benefits of these networks and why do they matter? The short answer is that these networks offer ways to connect universities with other institutions around the world and to share expertise, ideas and new ways of working. 

Most new networks still focus on strengthening the research and teaching capacity of universities. For example, the League of European Research Universities (Leru), of which Trinity College Dublin is a member, works brilliantly with its members to benefit research practice and to lobby on behalf of the interests of research-intensive universities.  

University networks are now the driving force in enabling higher level education to move on from established homogeneous institutional models to globally-active institutions. These networks are a collective effort to innovate and advance the role of the university by exploring new frontiers in how universities serve their publics, and the public good. 

As these networks flourish, we can also begin to see how they might evolve in future. I believe that more of them will be geared towards transdisciplinary approaches to education. They will also be fully embedded in their communities and offer all sorts of opportunities to students and faculty to move in and out of the university. This, in turn, will create lifelong learning pathways. The recent proposals for European University Networks launched by the European Commission constitute a valiant move to place Europe at the centre of such innovation. 

A good example of the transformative effect of networks can be found at my own university. Six years ago, Trinity pioneered a new network focused on our social and community engagement mission. That network was the Science Gallery Network, which built on the successful Science Gallery that was born on Trinity’s campus several years ago to encourage young people to engage with science. Science Gallery programmes blend art with science, technology, engineering and maths. This aligns perfectly with a focus within our university on interdisciplinarity and the development of critical, creative and analytical skills.  

Today, six universities around the world have a Science Gallery, which helps those institutions to provide opportunities for their academic community to engage with students, the public and society as a whole. The network enables researchers to show the impact of their work at a scale that otherwise wouldn’t be achievable, bringing academic endeavour into the public realm and making it widely accessible. The effects of the network are real and tangible. 

Science Gallery London is a potent symbol of King’s College London’s mission to connect with the local community. The University of Melbourne is meanwhile reinvigorating its formal curricula by engaging students in its Science Gallery exhibitions. Michigan State University has created a presence in downtown Detroit with Science Gallery; Science Gallery Venice at Ca’ Foscari is a much-needed resource for underserved local youths; and Science Gallery at Erasmus MC is both in the medical facility of the university and the cultural quarter of Rotterdam, connecting a hospital and the city – a world first. Science Gallery Bengaluru connects three academic institutions – the Indian Institute of Science, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (part of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) and Shrishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology – to focus on transforming the experience of education and research, revolutionising access to knowledge that was traditionally siloed.

The transdisciplinary approaches of networks like these bring local communities together with research that will have a real impact on the lives of local people, and forge partnerships with both local and international communities. For students, these new kinds of networks offer a catalyst to developing skills that universities don’t conventionally offer: empathy, creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence – all listed by the World Economic Forum as skills needed to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The world we live in today presents a rapidly evolving set of challenges. Flexibility and creativity are demanded from the people and institutions working to solve the world’s biggest problems. There can be no shying away from the scale of the many problems the world faces, nor indeed from the hopes and expectations of the world’s young people. It is now more important than ever for universities to set an example and continue to find new ways to deepen international partnerships and collaboration for the benefit of individual universities and society.  

Patrick Prendergast is president of Trinity College Dublin and chair of the board of Science Gallery International. 

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