It’s one of the great tensions for universities at the start of the 21st century: the relationship between the global and the local. Almost all of the world’s universities began as institutions deeply rooted in place. But as higher education has expanded around the world, universities have increasingly thought of themselves as globally connected institutions.
How to balance the “somewhere” and the “anywhere” is one of the real challenges for universities. Too much focus on the local, and universities become parochial. Put too much attention on the global, and universities easily lose their place-based identity. Later this week, the UPP Civic University Commission, which has been chaired by Sheffield Hallam University’s board chair, Lord Kerslake, will rightly challenge universities to think much harder about, and work more closely with, their communities.
Different universities try to address this in different ways. Some institutions have approached their global strategy as largely a business proposition. In the process, they have forgotten their own rootedness in place and think of themselves as multinational corporations growing across multiple sites.
You can go to parts of the Middle East and walk seamlessly from the campus of a mid-western American university to one of an Australian university, taking in the multiple regions of England along the way. Other universities have focused on bringing the world to their own home campus, emphasising international student recruitment – although there’s reasonable evidence that genuine mixing between home and international students is less widespread than most university leaders would want.
Sheffield Hallam is a university rooted in place. The first thing that struck me about Sheffield Hallam when I came to look around before my interview was the way it is central to the city. Once I got to know the university and the area better, I could appreciate even more its place within the history, geography and values of the city and the region. We attract students to the university from more than 100 countries around the globe, and we think a lot about how we can best meet the needs of all our students – whether they are from Sheffield or Shanghai, Barnsley or Barbados.
Our answers to this are clear and distinctive: we put our students at the centre, and we infuse the curriculum with an international perspective, with ever greater numbers of students engaging in overseas placements and field trips.
And we understand that our thinking about the global future is something that needs to be done globally: through a deeply embedded, multi-layered institutional relationship, where we commit to working closely together on the development of teaching and research, student experience and staff development. It's for this reason that we have cemented our first global strategic partnership with La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia.
La Trobe is similar to Sheffield Hallam in a number of important respects. It is about the same size, and the student demographic is similar. It is rooted in its place, as we are, and, like us, it thinks on a global scale about cross-cutting challenges.
Our strategic partnership builds on deep roots: the two universities have been working together across a number of activities for several years. That has placed us in an excellent position to have serious discussions about what such a partnership should look like. The two universities share similar ambitions and, importantly, similar ways of looking at the world.
We have parallel research strengths in sports, health, and the sciences and we have established and are developing collaborative teaching programmes. Most important of all, we have found that we get on well.
The Hallam-La Trobe partnership is something quite distinctive. The links are not at senior leadership level, or based on serendipitous connections in a small number of disciples. We are committing to a long-term partnership that will reach across a range of activities: student exchange, staff exchange, dual-degree development and joint research – all of which is embedded at different levels of the university.
Across the breadth of our activities as innovative academic institutions, we believe we can develop a relationship that is deep, enriching and inclusive. Through the full range of face-to-face and technological interactions which the modern world makes possible, we want to bring the resources of two like-minded universities together to build a genuinely equal, and mutually beneficial partnership.
Relationships of this sort – like all long-term relationships – demand commitment and engagement, putting at the centre a determination to see things through together. We believe that we can create new opportunities for students and staff, shared programmes and joint research, and an increasingly common view of the world. In the process, we will develop the profile of both universities as global institutions, ensuring that as the challenges of the 21st century unfold, we address them together.
Sir Chris Husbands is vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University.