It's not what you do, it's the way you do it

March 21, 1997

IF YOU were shown a university how would you know that it was a good one? One response might be to ask whether it does what it does well, and to find out whether it has quality processes. This sits snugly with notions of diversity and propositions that universities should focus on their strengths.

Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that universities themselves believe this. They are starting to look more similar, not less. The ex-polytechnics are seeking to expand their research while some old universities are opening access. League tables may be playing a part and also traditional enduring sentiments about the characteristics of a good university.

Although the recent research assessment exercise has exacerbated the view that any university worth its salt should have, or be seeking, substantial research activity, does the same apply for internationalism. Are good universities international?

It is difficult to understand international higher education without first locating key processes in its domestic context. Three issues exemplify this. The first is selectivity. If universities are meant to be diverse, then quite a number presumably ought not to be interested in international higher education at all. Instead they might focus on their locality and region, emphasising, for example, access. Yet it is difficult to find any university in the United Kingdom that has adopted this position.

Another variant is the proposition that the university product has been eroded by the abolition of the binary line. The result is confusion in the international market place - not least over the standing of all these new universities - and a potential loss of overall demand to other countries. Again, greater selectivity is to be preferred.

As on the domestic market, there is no reason why universities should ape each other and all be involved overseas. If they do, then at least each should focus on their strengths - whether subject or location. Problems arise when universities stray outside their area of competency.

Quality is the second issue. Concerns arise when inexperienced universities do not take sufficient care (for example in their marketing, choice of partners, or academic provision) to get things right.

The pressures of corporate commercialism can lead to short-cuts which, if not checked, can damage the UK's reputation for quality. There is a sneaking feeling that some universities may be tempted to offer subjects internationally that either they do not offer domestically, or in which they have little domestic reputation.

A final issue is the view of international higher education as a commodity, and particularly valuable as an export. All universities are hard-pressed financially, and face the temptation to add to cash flow by enhancing their international tradable activity. Not many can afford to stay out. This makes it less likely that internationalism per se distinguishes good from less good universities, rather than its form. Is it that the more commercial a university's internationalism, the less it confers advantage reputationally? Or perhaps such factors as postgraduate research, and travel to the UK are the key characteristics.

Pressures from employers, funders, students and others are likely to lead to the adoption of more specific and discriminatory types of internationalism to distinguish the apparently good from the allegedly bad. With virtually all universities, through necessity or choice, displaying at least some level of overseas activity, it is unlikely that we will have to wait long before the production of a league table of internationalism. It would be unfortunate, however, if this was too snotty as we could end up losing our reputation for quality and perhaps exclusiveness, and passing the advantage to more aggressive competitors.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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