Working with institutions outside the global elite is the way to truly internationalise

Universities that realise that innovation won’t always come via the top of league tables are the ones that will thrive in challenging times, says Maggie Dallman

June 4, 2018
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Global spending on higher education, science and innovation is rising as a portion of gross domestic product. There is more interest than ever in which universities will survive and thrive in a time of great change.  

In this context, world university rankings have never received so much attention. But are we looking in the right place? 

We know that the best science comes from international collaborations. The universities that truly globalise will be best placed to educate and innovate for generations to come. 

More interesting than traditional national or world university rankings, which typically reflect the status quo, are indicators of internationalisation in higher education.

Times Higher Education released its third annual ranking of the most international universities this year. It was topped by Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. My own institution, Imperial College London, ranked fifth, sandwiched between the National University of Singapore (fourth place) and its local peer, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (joint sixth place).

But, looking beyond rankings, all university leaders should be thinking about the mindset that will drive successful institutions over the coming years. 

You only have to walk around campuses such as NTU, Imperial or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to feel that there’s something different, something truly global about them. These universities are defined by their ability to forge research partnerships beyond their own backyards, to attract academic, student and management talent from all over the world, and to collaborate outside the university sector. 

It has been clear for years that collaboration, not just competition, is a powerful driver of excellence in higher education. But the type of collaboration matters. The most exciting collaborations in higher education are not just those growing between world top 10 universities such as Imperial and MIT, but between those that truly open up new opportunities and ways of thinking. 

Emerging higher education powers, especially in East Asia, have made their mark. In 2005, Chinese researchers were co-authors on 3 per cent of all Imperial College research papers published in Science or Nature; by 2015 that figure had leaped to 22 per cent. Such collaborations are driving much-needed breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, precision medicine, air quality control and antibiotic resistance. 

Forward-thinking institutions are collaborating beyond the well-funded Asian emerging powers or the US and UK universities at the top of world rankings. They are looking to Africa, India and other “new” markets. Innovation does not always come from traditional universities or those that dominate league tables. 

Ghana and Kenya, two countries that I recently visited, see the importance and value of innovation. Any university serious about its future would be foolish to ignore the potential for collaboration. Academics in both countries are at the heart of a global urban health network that could help reduce inequalities in healthcare for billions of city dwellers.

Researchers in Accra are sharing innovative ways of distributing finance and access to healthcare in the Ghanaian capital with their counterparts in London, Beijing and Vancouver. Kenyan medic Faith Osier has made great breakthroughs in understanding the mechanisms of immunity to malaria infection, leading to research between the Kenyan Medical Research Institute, the UK’s Wellcome Trust and the University of Oxford. African innovators played fundamental roles in the development of lasers, CAT scans and biomedical stem cell technology. There are many more African innovations to come. 

Of course, it is easier and more essential for some researchers to collaborate beyond their borders. The world’s most international university, EPFL in Lausanne, is surrounded by five neighbouring countries: France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. The geography of Kansas, Colorado or even Massachusetts does not lend itself quite so readily to Swiss levels of internationalism.  

But universities can overcome this – and many are not letting geography determine their levels of parochialism or internationalism. That may be why the geographically isolated University of Alberta performs better on internationalisation measures than its apparently more-connected Canadian peers. Jonathan Schaeffer, U Alberta’s dean of science, says that his institution has aggressively exploited Canada’s perceived openness in the age of Trump and Brexit, as well as technological advances such as massive open online courses, to attract global talent and collaborate beyond the university’s traditional partners.  

At MIT, about half of all research papers have an international co-author, up from a quarter in 2001. MIT has invested in a series of seed funds to support collaborative research as well as student exchanges with universities throughout the world in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. 

At Imperial, two-thirds of research papers are international, while 60 per cent of students and 40 per cent of staff come from outside the UK. The college’s president has been clear that Brexit will not hinder this global outlook, as we invest in seed funds and exchanges to kickstart new collaborations on every continent. 

One commentator, John Gapper, sees universities as the “new global brands”, with a superclass of “citiversities” embedded in hyper-connected metropolises. He could be right. But those citiversities had better be truly global if they are to succeed. That means more than just partnering with a handful of established names.

Universities that thrive in these times of great change will be those bold enough to truly internationalise.

Maggie Dallman is vice-president (international) at Imperial College London.

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Print headline: Collaborations beyond the global elite are the only way to truly internationalise and thrive

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