Sage advice

Close ties with Nobel laureates, global entrepreneurs and distinguished academics can boost an institution's international profile, as well as providing fresh insights, experience - and a hint of glamour. Philip G. Altbach and Jamil Salmi report

February 16, 2012

The latest must-have accoutrement among world-class universities, or those aspiring to world-class status, is an international advisory group.

Heidelberg University in Germany has one headed by a former University of Oxford vice-chancellor; the Higher School of Economics in Moscow has one chaired by a Nobel prizewinning US economist; and several Saudi Arabian universities have committees composed of top-ranking academics and business executives.

Their prevalence is a consequence partly of the proliferation of national "excellence initiatives" in various parts of the world, including China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, Spain and South Korea.

The laudable goals of such committees, which meet on an occasional basis to review and evaluate the institution's plans and performance, include the introduction of new ideas and analysis to help the institution understand itself and improve.

Committee members enter into a relationship with the university that sees them assume a responsibility for its welfare and improvement. They can be called on for occasional advice, generally on a pro bono basis.

Such committees can also confer added prestige on the university. A distinguished group of internationally respected academics provides lustre, and connections with a Nobel laureate are particularly prized.

Meetings of such a diverse group of experts - each with their own interests and commitments - usually happen only once or twice a year, normally at the university, and their sessions are typically attended by the institution's top management.

Sessions last for a day or two and often cover not only the broad performance and plans of the institution but often a specific analysis of one or more programmes, departments or initiatives.

Although we have not carried out a systematic analysis of the membership of advisory committees, it appears that most groups consist of prominent academics and institutional leaders from a range of disciplines chosen from top universities worldwide. Major universities in the English-speaking world tend to predominate.

The natural sciences and the "hard" social sciences, such as economics, seem to be particularly well represented.

The largest cohort comprises senior administrators from top-tier universities - sitting or recently retired presidents, vice-chancellors, rectors and the like.

There are few members from middle-ranking universities or emerging academic systems, and members are rarely drawn from universities within the same country.

But while academics are well represented, such committees also provide an opportunity to reach out beyond campus boundaries and draw on the experiences and expertise of those from different walks of life. So business leaders may be included, often from the high-technology sector.

However, the diversity of membership frequently only goes so far - at present seniority and maleness are recurring characteristics.

Advisory committee members are generally focused on service to their overseas colleagues and assisting other universities, but many enjoy a bit of academic tourism, and some wish to learn useful lessons from the university or committee colleagues. Few, if any, are able to devote a significant amount of time to the enterprise.

What about funding? Although the committees are not a major drain on universities' budgets, they do require some financing.

Members typically - albeit with some exceptions - serve without significant remuneration. But even so, expenses can add up. Direct costs usually include business-class flights and related travel, and hospitality while on campus. And indirect costs, often not considered carefully, can be substantial.

For instance, the time devoted to meetings by members of the senior management team, preparation time by the president and senior staff, and logistical arrangements could add up to well over $100,000 (£63,000) for a two-day meeting.

To make this a price worth paying, members must not only be committed to the university they must also be knowledgeable about the institution and its challenges, and they must arrive well prepared.

One advantage of having a committee is that a continuing relationship develops between the university, its senior management and the external advisers, and thus trust and insights are built up over time.

There are various other rules to ensure that the relationship is as rewarding as possible.

Committee members should be given hands-on experience at the host institution - through conversations with academics, students and others, as well as the inevitable interaction with top management.

The topics discussed at committee meetings must always be relevant and within the purview of expertise of the members.

This might involve long- and medium-term institutional strategy, proposed policies relating to governance, the academic profession, new curriculum plans, internationalisation and other macro issues.

Time and expertise should not be wasted on the minutiae of administrative matters, personnel policies or other detailed management and academic decisions - although policies concerning the promotion and evaluation of academics might be within its remit.

The meetings themselves must be carefully planned, with sufficient time allocated for each theme, and lengthy presentations by university administrators must be avoided.

In this instance, size matters. The university group that participates in the meeting must be small enough to permit productive discussions, but it can be worthwhile to include senior faculty members as well as more junior colleagues in meetings. However, it is important that the discussions remain confidential, so invitations have to be handed out with care.

The university must also be willing to expose problems and even crises to the committee members, not just its good news and accomplishments. Ultimately, the committee should be viewed not as a rubber-stamping executive group, but as part of the academic community.

Unlike a formal university board of trustees or governors, which exercises statutory supervisory responsibilities that sometimes place university leaders and board members in an antagonistic relationship, one of the major benefits of an international advisory board is that it can provide a non-threatening platform for candid feedback on the university's performance. It can also allow the sharing of external experience to inform the university's strategy.

Distinguished outsiders can bring an original perspective, help raise awareness about new challenges, provide relevant advice based on long experience from a range of institutions, and perhaps present innovative approaches derived from international good practices.

Dialogue between the university community and knowledgeable and sympathetic outsiders can yield useful insights. And there's nothing wrong with a bit of extra prestige.

Who's who on international advisory boards

While many universities rely on their own staff to guide them on international strategy, others are looking further afield.

The group of experts advising King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, for example, is drawn from six different countries.

With 16 members, KAUST's International Advisory Council aims to support and advise the president "on the overall academic development of the university towards establishing KAUST as a globally renowned graduate university that makes significant contributions to scientific and technological advancements", the university says.

It is chaired by Sir Richard Friend, Cavendish professor of physics at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. Members "are selected on the basis of their leadership, expertise and experience in scientific, technical, business and academic domains".

They include Wolfgang Herrmann, president of the Technical University of Munich; Samuel Bodman, former US secretary of energy; Bai Chunli, executive vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US.

In the UK, it is common for university research centres, and individual schools within universities, to have international advisory boards.

However, it is unusual to have a university-wide external international committee.

At the University of Oxford, both the Said Business School and the Oxford Martin School (an interdisciplinary research centre tackling global challenges) have global advisory councils, but the university itself does not.

Instead, a spokeswoman says, Oxford has a small administrative group - the International Strategy Office - that is responsible for developing "a coherent corporate strategy to promote Oxford's international relations, global profile and international competitiveness".

Staff in the office work as internal "consultants" for the university on issues such as Oxford's approach to international student recruitment and funding; the integration of international academic staff and students; international collaborations; and promoting deeper engagement with key countries and regions.

A spokeswoman for Oxford explains: "At Oxford, international strategy is part and parcel of our strategy to pursue excellence in teaching, research and contributions to society, so we embed it in the work of the bodies that determine the university's strategy and policies generally rather than hiving international strategy off into a separate, external group."

Newcastle University takes a different approach; it has both an internal Internationalisation Strategy Group and an external Internationalisation Special Interest Group.

The latter draws on external expertise "to explore ways of building on our already strong international reputation", a spokeswoman for the university says.

Its members include Robert Hull, the former head of the division for environment policy and sustainable development at the European Commission; Paul Walker, the former chief executive of Sage Group; and Mark I'Anson, chair of Newcastle University's council and chairman of Northern Enterprise.

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