About 460 universities in Commonwealth countries belong to the Association of Commonwealth Universities and about 350 vice chancellors gathered at their meeting this year in Malta.
A collection of so many vice chancellors all in one place gave me pause to wonder what the collective noun for such a group might be. The best I could do is "asylum" but maybe my South African perspective gives me a somewhat jaundiced view. Asylum or not, it was certainly a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world and discover that your problems and challenges are not so unique after all and some people have found solutions which are most helpful.
The South African vice chancellors particularly enjoyed the opportunity to mix with their peers elsewhere in the world after being isolated by sanctions for so long.
The conference theme was "Universities in an Age of Mass Higher Education: Management of Quality and Standards". This in turn was divided into topics and the first of these had a particular relevance to the conference given that the vice chancellors from Nigeria had been refused permission by their government to attend the conference. This topic had to do with achieving the objectives of higher education without losing quality and maintaining a balance between autonomy and accountability.
There was lively debate during this session and those of us who do not have the liability of being government appointees realised just how difficult it is for those vice chancellors in the world who are less fortunate.
During the statutory meeting of the association there was some debate on whether or not it would be helpful to the Nigerian vice chancellors if a motion was passed "regretting" their absence. It was interesting to note that it was the South African vice chancellors who raised the issue and some of us would have preferred "outrage" to "regret" but perhaps we are just generally less polite than our peers elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
The second topic was "Client expectations of quality and standards" and there was wry comment that we used to talk about "light, learning and liberty" and now we find ourselves talking about "economy, efficiency and effectiveness" - somewhat less elevating! "Standards" is a word which, in South Africa at least, has come to be associated with apartheid-speak so it was refreshing to have one of the speakers take that head-on and quote from an article by Christopher Ball entitled "What the hell is quality?" Whatever our regrets about what we find ourselves having to contemplate in a world of shrinking resources, I think it is fair to say that the consequence is a powerful concentrating of the mind in deciding what truly is important and essential as opposed to nice-to-have and non-essential.
The third topic had to do with quality in management and in particular, change management. One view had it that universities were collegial in nature and one could harness this collegiality to manage change. Another view (my own I am bound to say) is that they are not collegial, except for the professoriate and the male professoriate at that. Clearly some societies are more hierarchical than others and that also complicates the question of how best to bring about change in a world which is rapidly becoming more egalitarian in its workings and will not leave universities as pristine reminders of the past.
A further four topics focused on open and distance learning and it is clear that there is general agreement that our systems and even individual institutions need to offer a combination of delivery modes.
There are some stunningly successful examples of open learning in many countries and one excellent benefit of conferences such as this is the opportunity to find people who are ready to share their experience in the best scholarly tradition so we do not all have to reinvent.
The insistence from some academics that no material can simply be transplanted into different cultural settings probably has at least some validity; however this seems overplayed given the experience of universities that are already offering many courses in several different countries without major rewrites.
In an age of massification the question of whether we are educating the leaders of tomorrow or simply the citizens of tomorrow was a cause of much debate - a debate of relevance only in those countries where the participation rate is high, I suggest.
In South Africa, for example, where we are nowhere near even an average participation rate for a country which is quite sophisticated in its infrastructure and output, the questions are somewhat different. Nevertheless, all had an interest in pursuing the question of the role of university education in society. It was clear that the re-examination of this question led most of us to return to the original goals of education: in many ways we have reached a full circle. We know we cannot teach everything students need to know for the rest of their working careers so the debate revolves around the issue of what basic fundamentals graduates should be equipped with so as to be considered educated.
A discussion on management strategies for redressing the gender imbalances of senior academia was attended (guess what) mainly by the pitifully few women vice chancellors and who needs to speak to the converted? I was inclined simply to hand out the papers available to those present and take the afternoon off to explore Malta.
However, in deference to the few hardy males who did join this session we soldiered on. The association has a women's programme to which the Australian universities had made the most generous financial commitment and there is now a small task group charged with recommending how the money available should be spent. If anybody out there can think of a way to change the mind-sets of several hundred male vice chancellors, can you let us know?
The final session dealt with cross-national implications of quality and it is interesting to note that our world is such that all of us need to consider these matters - the global village and the mobility of students being what they are.
The quality of discussion was very high and the issues crucial. We are indebted to the staff of the ACU who laboured to make the conference a success (I wonder if organisers ever get the thanks they deserve) and to the staff of the University of Malta who surely went beyond the call of duty in their efforts and made marvellous hosts.
As for Malta itself, put it on your list of fascinating places to visit sometime. Move over Stonehenge - behold the temple of Ggantija and much more besides!
Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal, South Africa.