Internationalisation is 'ours to win or lose'

UK and US can gain in global game if they hit the right notes, conference told. Sarah Cunnane writes

February 17, 2011

Vice-chancellors seeking to take advantage of the internationalisation of higher education face a "flat world with no boundaries" that they should do more to exploit.

That was the message from Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, in a keynote speech at a conference in London organised by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Mr Bean said that, for university leaders in the UK or US, internationalisation was "our game to win or lose", although he stressed that international activity had to be closely tied to individual institutions' missions if it was to succeed in the longer term.

Also speaking at the event last week, via a video-link from the US, John Sexton, president of New York University, likened global higher education to a symphony orchestra, with each player having a different role dictated by their individual skill and mission.

"You can't put on a great symphony if you don't have percussion or a brass section; not everyone should be a violinist," he said.

"We have to accept that and live within a world where each is honoured for what he or she brings to the table. I think we have to celebrate that more because we each deal with different students and different problems."

Mr Bean warned that universities that looked upon internationalisation solely as a potential money-spinner and sought to cash in by creating "a business on the side" would fail.

He said: "The body will reject the antibody."

His advice to those entering international markets was that their university's values and culture should determine their choice of areas of activity and partners.

"When I ask people what their plan is for internationalisation, they sometimes say, 'India and China,'" he said. "It's not that simple."

Keep home team on side

Mr Bean added that it was important to win support from staff before embarking on any global ambitions.

"If you want to go down the international route and you don't have the support of the most senior people in your governance body, then you are likely to fail," he said.

While each institution needs to respond in its own way, Professor Sexton said, it was imperative that universities recognise that they operate in a global sector and do not stick their head in the sand or assume that they will profit without first developing an appropriate strategy.

"Internationalisation is there; it's going to happen. The question is: how do we respond to it, shape it and see it as an opportunity?"

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