Global access plan mooted

May 4, 2001

The Association of Commonwealth Universities should act as a bridgehead to link academic institutions in the Commonwealth with European Union universities as well as other networks, its secretary-general has proposed.

Michael Gibbons sought support for the plan at the association's conference, "New Configurations in Globalisation", in Cyprus.

Increasingly, universities are forging alliances and networks among themselves in what Professor Gibbons describes as "competition-induced collaborations".

Overlapping networks around the globe do not just enable geographically and culturally distanced institutions to collaborate productively, they also allow universities more access to resources.

Professor Gibbons enthused about collaboration between EU and Commonwealth countries, citing the treaty between Canada and Europe.

The treaty's mobility programme provides funding for staff-student exchanges. Canadian vice-chancellors said the knowledge that resources were already available for exchange and partnership programmes made a crucial difference to their success.

Not all university heads were convinced they should be looking towards Europe. David Marshall, president of Nipissing University, in Ontario, Canada, said: "We needed to remain ahead of our competitors, so we have developed a loose network of agreements with other similarly sized universities in Chile, Mexico, Nepal, the United States and Northern Ireland."

One Nipissing academic is working at a university in Russia via a collaboration with Mansfield University in the United States. Professor Gibbons said this kind of networking will "restore the diversity that is being lost through over-concentration on achieving cost-efficiency and expanding market share in students".

But many vice-chancellors remained unconvinced that networking would shield their universities from the more negative consequences of globalisation.

Indian delegates were concerned about the exodus of their information technology specialists to the US. Mahesh Kapoor, director of the Thapar Institute of Engineering in Punjab, also feared that as increasing numbers of students were attracted to IT or business administration, the fundamental academic disciplines would be starved of high-quality students. "Society also needs good philosophers, good social scientists, good chemists. What happens when we all have MBAs?" he said.

Saraswathy Rao, vice-chancellor of Sri Krishnadevarayia University in Andra Pradesh, said greater globalisation meant greater hardship for the rural poor who make up 30 per cent of the university's student intake.

She said the possibility of access to the EU cake brought little consolation. "The EU has no relevance to us - it is not going to help us in any way."

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