Fanfare for common good

November 22, 1996

As their role becomes more complex and resources more scarce, universities need to forge stronger links, says Michael Gibbons. THE COMMONWEALTH is undergoing a period of considerable change. The number of Commonwealth countries that have become major actors in terms of international trade has increased. This is true now of several of the burgeoning economies of South East Asia; it will certainly be true of India and South Africa in the future.

By focusing on polycentrism, the recent report of the Commons foreign affairs committee on the Commonwealth draws out a vision in which partnerships, alliances and networks among Commonwealth nations, and between Commonwealth nations and various trading blocs, are becoming of strategic importance.

Universities, too, are facing profound changes. Across the world, national higher education systems are under pressure. It is a difficult time for vice chancellors and academic staff alike as they have to focus their attention less on academic leadership and more on becoming efficient institutional managers.

The polycentric Commonwealth is characterised by a dozen dynamic economies, by hundreds of universities, and by a growing number of inter-university bodies. As more nations participate in world trade, international competition will strengthen and there will be an imperative for more, not less, collaboration among partners in the economic sphere.

In industry and finance this has meant making greater use of shared resources in tackling complex problems through the establishment of joint ventures, partnerships, alliances, and networks. Such arrangements are not an optional extra for firms. They are essential in addressing complex problems in a cost-effective way.

The same imperative for institutional cooperation is now pressing on universities. To maintain their standing, whether in research or teaching, the use of shared resources is now essential if the log-jam of falling resources and increasingly diverse teaching and research requirements are to be met. As with industry, access to information and resources, rather than the holding of these in house, is the key to effective performance.

As many organisations have now discovered, gaining the necessary access to information and expertise is far from straightforward or inexpensive. In particular, management is required if the benefits are not to remain purely potential ones. It is here that the Association of Commonwealth Universities has an opportunity to provide a distinctive service for its members that squarely meets their needs. The ACU has an established reputation for excellence in management and administration and for the quality of its information services. It has a standing and an independence unrivalled by many of the new regional groupings. Throughout its history, it has vigorously defended its independence, and it has resisted the temptation to become a lobby for any particular government or political movement, as some national organisations have.

The ACU has sufficient experience and credibility to be able to attract expertise to address the complex issues that confront the higher education systems of most countries, whether in teaching, research, or university management. Increasingly, it has access to funding from a growing variety of multilateral and bilateral agencies and donor organisations. The ACU needs to strengthen these capabilities and become more proactive.

To do this, some new orientations will need to be formed and new skills acquired. A networking capability involves the ability to acquire and interpret data and to identify trends and problems that need to be addressed and to do this more effectively than others are able to do. Since the ACU itself cannot afford to generate all the resources it needs in-house to identify or solve a particular problem, it, too, needs to be able to access resources held by others. On a wide variety of issues and problems, the relevant expertise exists in abundance throughout the Commonwealth.

The ACU will need to develop links with a range of funding organisations. Consider, for example, how relations between nations have been altered by the emergence of a number of multilateral agencies dispensing aid or other funds. These bodies gather funds from members - usually national governments - and re-distribute them through programmes of their own devising and over which participating members have much less direct control than before. Notable among these are the United Nations, the European Union, and, increasingly, the North American Free Trade Association and the South East Asian Trading Organisation.

It is sometimes argued that the growth of these types of organisation has effectively drained funds away from national bilateral programmes, thereby reducing the amount of cake available for distribution, particularly to Commonwealth activities. But it is important to keep in mind that not infrequently one or more Commonwealth countries participate as members in new regional agglomerations and in fact may be active in more than one grouping. So, they are not cut off from funds altogether.

In so far as these agglomerations develop multilateral functions, Commonwealth countries may be able to obtain funds using other means and via different routes. Working through multilateral agencies, however, usually involves working with institutions from countries within the grouping. In Europe, for example, this has meant that the accent is on international cooperation; that is, on building teams that can treat problems identified by the policies of the particular multilateral organisation. The same ethos underlies the policies of many international donor organisations.

All universities need information, but it must be adapted to particular needs. To provide this on their own is expensive.

Universities are also in constant need of cost-effective, innovative solutions in teaching provision and need to find affordable ways of establishing themselves at the forefront of at least a few areas of research. Most are strapped for cash. The only way forward is by making better use of shared resources, whether it be physical plant such as libraries, research equipment, or staff. This is already the way of the world in most industries and in many of the best managed research laboratories. The reason that it is resisted is primarily because of organisational complexity. In industry, firms that intend to remain internationally competitive, have not, for many years now, relied exclusively on in-house resources. In fact, they cannot do so, partly because they are too expensive, but also partly because at any particular time it is not clear just what expertise is required.

The aim of the ACU is to help member universities identify, find the resources for, and solve the problems with which they are confronted now and in the future.

By turning its expertise outwards and developing its configuration potential, the ACU will be able to meet its objectives by facilitating team-building through the sharing of resources; and by developing its strategic information capability to help identify problems. This is something that no university could do on its own. It is not even something that universities could easily do in combination from scratch. To invest their already stretched resources to develop these skills in-house is, in any case, questionable. Why would universities want to replicate a network which already exists?

Michael Gibbons took over as secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities in September. An expanded version of this article will appear in the December issue of the ACU Bulletin of Current Documentation.

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