Look past the usual suspects to foster global exchange

V-c says focus on China and India ignores other collaboration opportunities. John Gill reports

July 3, 2008

The internationalisation strategies of UK universities must go beyond the politically motivated focus on India and China, a vice-chancellor has said.

Eric Thomas, who heads the University of Bristol, said countries such as Japan, Mexico and Brazil were also vital partners. He added that the most significant collaborations of all were not with developing nations but with the higher education "superpower", the US.

"If you read what is written about universities and you listen to what politicians talk about, they always talk about China and India," he said. "Let's be quite clear, for a university such as Bristol - and we have links into China and India - the most powerful way of adding value to international collaborations is by collaborating with universities in the US.

"How often do you hear about that as far as the internationalisation agenda is concerned? Not very often - yet it is the world's most powerful higher education and research environment. It's almost as if it is an elephant in the room.

"And in the debate about China and India, everyone seems to have forgotten that the second-largest economy in the world is a place called Japan," Professor Thomas said.

"We've really got to make sure that we broaden our sense of what is globally important, and there's no question that South America and Mexico are seen as very rapidly developing areas."

Professor Thomas, a former chair of the Worldwide Universities Network, was speaking after Bristol joined Santander Universities, a scheme run by a Spanish bank that funds scholarships and other links with universities in Latin America, Spain and Portugal.

He said: "Our internationalisation agenda isn't around increasing markets for students, it is about maximising the potential knowledge generation from collaborations.

"We get first-class overseas students as we stand at the moment, so 'lucrative' isn't what I'm interested in; but links with universities in some of these countries would bring to us additional insight, additional intellectual capital and may be important geographically.

"For example, if you want to study the ridge off the Chile coast, where there's a fantastic subduction zone that is of unique geological and geochemical interest, then you have to work with the University of Chile - so geographical considerations matter."

Although research-intensive universities with a long history of working internationally had an advantage over new universities, they still faced obstacles, Professor Thomas said.

"Different sizes of university, different cultures within the institutions, different governance and different funding streams for research can all cause problems," he said.

On the significance of India and China to UK universities, he said that two countries with a combined population of 2.5 billion would always be important partners.

But Professor Thomas said: "There are still some significant issues that could impact on the development of those countries and the rapidity of that development."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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