With all the mission groups, strategic alliances and research networks of which modern universities are part, they might be forgiven for questioning the need to be members of a non-selective club established at the height of the British Empire.
However, according to John Wood, the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ secretary general, the body continues to add more members to the 53 that signed up in 1913 to the Universities Bureau of the British Empire, the organisation’s original name.
In an interview with Times Higher Education to mark the association’s centenary, Professor Wood said that membership - which currently stands at 540 institutions - was particularly valued in the developing world.
“Many universities there feel isolated and are under horrendous political pressure. Being linked into all these other institutions…gives them authentication with their governments,” the former chief executive of the UK’s Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils said.
To that end, the association is developing a set of metrics - distinct from those typically utilised by Western-dominated global university rankings - that its members in developing countries could use to demonstrate to their governments that they are “doing a good job”.
However, despite the Indian government’s prompting, the association remains reluctant to limit its membership by imposing stricter entry criteria than the existing requirement: institutions must have run nationally accredited degree programmes for at least six years. Professor Wood’s preference was to develop a self-benchmarking framework “so universities can find out for themselves if they are doing the right thing without us…judging them”.
The ACU’s 75 staff - two-thirds of whom administer scholarship programmes - are still located in London (the University of London was the driving force behind the organisation’s establishment). But Professor Wood said the ACU is also contemplating opening an office in India, where it has 173 members - a figure that is rising rapidly.
Many of the association’s programmes are focused on the developing world, including its work on open access, early-career academics and investigating how university teachers without doctorates can remain “one step ahead” of students in an era of massive open online courses.
For this reason, Professor Wood admitted that some Western universities were less convinced that their membership fees - which vary according to national gross domestic product and an institution’s size - represented a good investment.
However, apart from Imperial College London, most high-ranked members have stayed put, motivated by consciousness of their role-model status and, more pragmatically, by the access that membership affords to the association’s many networks based around generic issues such as human resources, public relations and gender.
Western vice-chancellors also appreciated the “breathing space” membership offered them, allowing them to stand back from the everyday business of running their institutions and reflect on their goals, Professor Wood added.
Others had even more basic needs: “I asked one retired Canadian vice- chancellor why he had stayed in. He told me: ‘I just needed a shoulder to cry on,’” the secretary general said.