Leader: Immovable feast of talent

Global mobility in the academy's top ranks has been limited, but fresh perspectives could be vital in a shifting landscape

November 11, 2010

There can be no doubt that higher education is internationalising at a rapid rate. The International Association of Universities' third and latest Global Survey report, Internationalisation of Higher Education: Global Trends, Regional Perspectives, considers the subject. Its poll of 745 universities in 115 nations shows that internationalisation is cited in the strategic plans of 87 per cent of them, with 78 per cent reporting its growing importance in the past three years.

The focus has been on student recruitment and mobility. In the UK, these efforts have in recent times been hampered by the UK Border Agency as it tries to prevent abuse of the visa system. Now there is talk of further restrictions, this time on foreign students taking courses below the degree level, many of whom would naturally progress to university.

Even the Duke of York, the UK's special representative for international trade and investment, last week appeared exasperated by the government's policy. "Every country I go to I get complaints about the visa regime," he told a conference at Wellington College, titled Brand UK: Why British Schools and Universities Should Set Up Abroad.

But has internationalisation penetrated the academy's top ranks? It would seem from our cover story that global mobility at the senior level is limited and that movement is still broadly confined to anglophone countries.

"The barriers to a foreign national coming to lead a university are considerably higher than for students to study overseas or professors to teach overseas," says Ben Wildavsky, author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (2010). Language appears to be the major stumbling block, as high-level appointments need high-level contacts and good communication skills to enable them to deal with government and business.

The Americans, of course, are masters of externally focused higher education management, and the UK's shifting landscape will no doubt lead to an influx of US leaders, thanks to their experience of fundraising, high tuition fees and public-private competition.

Within Europe, movement has been severely limited. There, universities are under much greater state control and traditionally there has been a "closed shop" excluding foreigners. Outsiders' perceived lack of awareness of local culture is to blame, says Jo Ritzen, president of Maastricht University. But increased foreign recruitment could, he says, bring welcome change. The obstacles should be "weighed against the great advantage: the contribution of a different view and the accompanying innovation in universities".

Different views can be incredibly useful when recruiting overseas students. Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta, hails from Sri Lanka. She says that because of her background, it has been easier for her to build links in India, as she understands "what the developing world is like".

But it's not only about business: the benefits can be cultural, too. In South Africa, universities are about "improving people's quality of life and building the social fabric", says Calie Pistorius, a University of Pretoria veteran who is now vice-chancellor of the University of Hull. In the aftermath of the Comprehensive Spending Review, that sort of transformative agenda may be something that the UK needs.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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