Elite universities such as Harvard are not doing enough to address world problems, Leeds University's vice-chancellor has said.
Speaking exclusively to The Times Higher , Michael Arthur asked: "Do the very wealthy universities of North America really contribute to tackling global problems on a scale commensurate with their funding? What impact are these famous universities that top world league tables having on the big issues?"
Professor Arthur, who chairs the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) of 16 universities, believes that wealthy institutions should collaborate more internationally. He questioned the success of the partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge University, which received £45 million from the UK Government in 2000.
"My overall impression is that the MIT-Cambridge link-up hasn't been as successful as was hoped, that it hasn't delivered major outcomes. My view is that if a similar sum of money were thrown at collaborating across multiple universities more would come of it," Professor Arthur said.
"The world has worked bilaterally in terms of higher education collaboration for a long time, but that isn't going to be enough to tackle the big problems facing the world over the next century such as climate change, international health and cultural diversity and its relationship to civil unrest.
"Our claim is that the WUN is the first to have a decent crack at doing this."
WUN projects include a group headed by York University, which has a £900,000 grant from the European Union to study the social, ethical and political implications of stem-cell therapy, tissue engineering and bio- imaging. This month, WUN launched an initiative to research changes in plant productivity as a result of climate change and environmental degradation.
Aside from its involvement with WUN, Leeds has a £200 million fund, used to foster international collaboration. However, Leeds has no plans for overseas expansion.
"We are not keen on overseas campuses," Professor Arthur said. "We much prefer the partnership route to internationalisation of education and research. We're not sure that we could reproduce what we offer in Leeds in a different country. We are looking for enduring partnerships, and we see the WUN as the best way to do that."
David Pilsbury, WUN chief executive, said: "The internationalisation agenda in higher education is dominated by debate about overseas campuses and recruitment of international students - it's entirely about where people are in the world. In the age of virtual technology, universities ought to be able to come up with something rather more imaginative. We need research models that allow us to conduct relationships divorced from the constraints of time and geography."