What role do global university networks have in the new political landscape?

Bairbre Redmond considers the importance of international collaboration ahead of the BRICS & Emerging Economies Universities Summit

November 20, 2016
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The results of the recent US presidential election and the Brexit vote have revealed a populist shift towards insular, national protectionism with an underlying fear and suspicion of difference.

Universities have a duty to work together across the world to demonstrate the positive power of internationalisation, rather than isolationism and distrust. It is only by doing so that we can produce outward-looking graduates who can appreciate and embrace social, political and racial difference and work effectively across boundaries and borders. 

Seeking out and working with other universities both in and beyond one’s own country is one way to achieve many of the goals of internationalisation in higher education. However, universities are increasingly pitted against one another to attract fee-paying students, the best academic talent and scarce research resources. So, finding national and international university partners and creating effective cooperative alliances for them to work in can often be a difficult and complex balance to achieve. 

I have just become the first provost of Universitas 21, a global university network. Previously, as a senior academic in one of U21’s member universities, University College Dublin, I gained a strong appreciation of the benefits of being part of a global university network.

A key aim for U21 is to create truly international opportunities on a scale that no individual member would be able to achieve operating independently (or through traditional bilateral alliances). This has been described in research on global university alliances as creating “collaborative advantage”, and can provide enough benefit to individual universities to justify membership. The research also notes that successful international networks need to establish the willingness of members to participate in the provision of collective goods.

There is an inherent conflict in university networks between the benefit of collective sharing of resources such as institutional expertise, research intelligence and key data, and the need to protect members’ individual competitiveness. This is particularly seen in the challenge of creating strategic research collaborations entirely within networks, against the background of existing bilateral disciplinary partnerships and changing funding application criteria – both of which may require the inclusion of non-network members.   

On the other hand, the capacity to increase student and staff mobility in a university network represents a less contested collective good. In addition, there is undisputed benefit in the sharing of educational expertise and resources.

At a recent conference (focusing on defining and recognising teaching excellence), it struck me that each senior university delegate could leave the event and significantly enhance educational standards in their own university without creating any threat to other institutions’ success. Put simply, we can never have enough good teaching.  

To continue to be relevant and attractive to members, global university networks cannot afford to stand still. There is a requirement to consistently evaluate how and why particular aspects of a network collaboration work. This includes developing systems, processes and platforms that can facilitate easy mobility (both physical and virtual) for staff and students, and the sharing of key resources to strengthen communications across countries and continents.

It also behooves international networks to ensure that they maintain open and constructive discussion spaces for academics, staff and students from very different educational, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that the concept of collective advantage also applies to university networks themselves, not least for their own survival. Membership of different national and international networks presents diverse but often complementary advantages to individual universities, any of whom may be members of two or more alliances.

Networks individually need to be alert to developing and enhancing their own strengths and benefits for their members and acknowledging that, in the longer term, a focus on complementary rather than competitive networks is of more benefit to members, to the networks themselves and to international higher education in general. 

Bairbre Redmond is provost of Universitas 21. She will be speaking at the 2016 BRICS & Emerging Economies Universities Summit, taking place in Johannesburg from 30 November to 2 December. Book now.

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