Interview - One man, two guvnors and a single vision

Paul Jump talks to Andrew Coats, go-to director for a game-changing approach to collaboration

December 13, 2012

Source: University of Warwick

Smoothing the path: Coats intends to ‘look at every aspect of the university to see if it can be better done jointly’

When Andrew Coats was recruited earlier this year as the inaugural director of the University of Warwick’s much-trumpeted alliance with Australia’s Monash University, he was cheerfully informed by the latter’s chancellor, Alan Finkel, that anything less than “changing the game” on university collaboration would be deemed a failure.

Professor Coats does not disagree with this view. For him, the Anglo-Australian alliance must be more “deep and meaningful” than the glut of existing inter-university collaborations that result in little more than the exchange of a few students and occasional mutual visits by senior managers.

“I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t something really dramatic,” Professor Coats told Times Higher Education after a high-level launch event for the alliance, held at the Australian High Commission in London at the end of October.

There, Nigel Thrift, Warwick’s vice-chancellor, explained that the alliance’s “genuinely unique” scope and ambition were underpinned by the conviction that universities would be unable to fulfil their increasingly “complex array of duties” if they continued restricting their business “to the confines of the nation state, with its necessarily limited resources and horizons”. Rather than overseas campuses, he saw partnerships between established institutions as the best way to break out of those restrictions.

Professor Thrift said that during the three years of an existing “core strategic partnership”, Warwick and Monash had discovered “shared ambitions, common levels of quality and surprisingly similar institutional cultures”. Ed Byrne, Monash’s vice-chancellor, agreed, describing both institutions as “hungry and never happy with where they were”. Noting that universities could not expect immunity from globalisation, he said the appointment of Professor Coats was the first time that two universities from different continents had made such a senior joint appointment.

Dynamic duo

Professor Coats, an Australian cardiologist and currently chief executive of Norwich Research Park, will formally take up the role of alliance director and joint academic vice-president of Monash and Warwick in February.

However, he is already actively engaged with his remit, which involves “looking at every aspect of the university to see if it can be better done jointly” and then smoothing the bureaucratic way to making joint solutions possible.

He said the two universities - which he described as “slightly aggressive teenagers who wonder why the adults get everything” - hope to achieve a “huge” increase in research income and reputation by delivering outcomes together that they could not do alone.

This will be achieved partly through bursaries for joint PhDs and the joint appointment of up to 50 research “stars”.

Professor Coats said the quality of applicants for the first six joint positions - all in chemistry - confirmed expectations that the lure of running labs in both universities and accessing two national funding systems and pools of doctoral students would attract researchers who “in all honesty probably wouldn’t have answered an advert to either Warwick or Monash alone”.

He said the applicants, who will be in post from April, would be assessed on their ability to manage a lab from afar, but insisted that doing so was “not rocket science” - “multinational companies have done it for many years”.

Nor did he regard the distance between the UK and Australia as a bar to joint investments in research infrastructure, pointing out that researchers were used to arranging access to distantly located national or international facilities - often via email-based collaborations.

Accessing equipment on the other side of the world is no different, he said. “In some ways it is easier: you do your work and…your colleague picks it up overnight in his time zone and finishes it off.”

But all involved in the alliance agree that research is, in Professor Byrne’s phrase, the “easy bit”: joint teaching and learning will be harder.

Professor Coats said it was “obvious” what could be achieved, but agreed that, historically, teaching has been “far more local than transnational”, with bureaucracy such as course approvals and credit points set up as “local industries”.

The alliance plans to establish “completely different” courses involving face-to-face and online tuition. These will begin with jointly taught master’s degrees in subjects where the universities have existing research links and where their locations can be capitalised on (for example, archaeology).

“It is just the ‘low hanging fruit’ initially, but then [we need to identify] what the big global challenges are that this alliance can help solve,” Professor Coats explained.

The universities are also looking at tapping into new international student markets by establishing undergraduate degrees combining science and the humanities. These would be taught at both campuses so that students could spend as much time as they liked in each (or at one of Monash’s several overseas campuses), thus preparing for “global careers”.

The aim, Professor Coats said, was for the two universities to “operate in a seamless way so that students coming from overseas have the impression they are joining a single university with two campuses”. He said that the improved student experience that would arise from a more international student body would be further enhanced by initiatives such as combined sporting and debating competitions.

Expanding network

He admitted the alliance’s grand global ambitions were likely to be best served by expanding and establishing “a workable network” with additional institutions that “has a footprint over all the major world areas”.

For this reason, it was likely that the alliance could grow to include member institutions from North America and China - plus, possibly, Latin America and the Indian subcontinent. But any network with more than six members would be unlikely to achieve the level of integration that the alliance aspires to reach, Professor Coats added.

He admitted that the danger of such mutual absorption was that alliance members might ignore potentially fruitful collaborations with other institutions. But he insisted the alliance was not meant to be exclusive, and suggested that the bigger risk was that the rank-and-file at the two founding universities might end up perceiving it as a mere distraction: “the pet hobby” of the two vice-chancellors. To prevent this, he said, it would be crucial to consult staff and listen to their problems in order to “make the opportunities more visible”.

Another major risk was that the alliance might miss its targets for boosting research and teaching income, thus threatening its financial sustainability. For this reason, he would make sure that every joint initiative had “a very detailed, carefully thought through business plan”.

But the cultural similarities between Warwick and Monash gave Professor Coats every confidence that the alliance would herald a new era of globalised higher education.

“There will be a lot of interest in what the alliance achieves. We expect to be copied in the future and this will be of great benefit in terms of [our reputation as] innovative universities,” he said.

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