Internationalisation 2.0: scaling up to meet the challenges

Universities are finding that feeding the growing worldwide hunger to learn requires an international team effort

February 18, 2016
Map of globally-interconnected academic network (illustration)

Fifty-two people are born and 18 people die in India every minute. Or so says Google. There are, in short, a lot of people in the country – a sixth of the world’s population, and rising.

As in other developing economies, appetite for higher education is enormous, and the system that has emerged in India is a mix of central universities and elite Indian Institutes of Technology, underpinned by less prestigious state universities and tens of thousands of private colleges. Students with enough money (or access to a bank loan) also have the option of going abroad, with the UK, the US and Australia among those competing for their tuition fees.

Writing in this week’s Times Higher Education, Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, notes that this national structure is unlikely to produce the “world-class” research universities that India covets.

With finite resources, it may be the only way to meet demand from students, but there are those who believe that alternatives on the horizon could offer quality provision to the masses in countries with such exploding demand.

One such model, which the former UK universities minister Lord Willetts has championed, is based on the growth of global chain universities run by for-profit providers with access to capital markets to fund their growth.

Another is for universities with more traditional set-ups to develop novel partnerships across continents and to embrace technology to amplify their efforts.

Falling into this latter category is the newly unveiled PLuS Alliance, a tie-up between King’s College London, the University of New South Wales and Arizona State University.

At a launch event last week, Michael Crow, president of the US “upstart” of the trio, spoke with trademark bullishness about its potential.

ASU, the largest public university in the US, has developed what Crow describes as a “differentiated teaching, learning and discovery platform” to serve “a part of the US that will soon have no majority population, has unbelievable social complexity and unbelievable challenges”.

The way his university had responded to its environment by rethinking its “design and purpose”, and by using technology in particular, had lessons too for a rapidly changing world, he believes. “We’re getting a sense…of the complexity of what lies ahead for the world as it goes from 7.3 billion people to 10 billion people,” he said.

The focus of the PLuS alliance will be on areas of research that could loosely be categorised as global sustainability (water resources, global health, social justice), and on educational priorities identified by Crow as “educational attainment and sustainable outcomes”.

This “collaboration at scale”, across three continents and between universities with different but complementary strengths, is becoming something of a trend in what might be called Internationalisation 2.0. Other examples involve the likes of Warwick and Monash universities, and the international campus being established by the University of California, Berkeley and partners.

Universities have always operated with an incongruous mix of competition and collaboration, but these groupings are recognition perhaps that, like delivering a quality higher education to billions more students, many of the world’s problems are too big to tackle alone.

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