Lack of global strategy a grave threat, v-c warns

John Gill reports on fears that some universities' reliance on overseas income is unsustainable

September 25, 2008

Some universities are putting themselves at risk by failing to properly think through their international strategies, a leading sector expert has warned.

Sir Graeme Davies, vice- chancellor of the University of London and a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that a well-planned global strategy could secure the future for many in the sector. But for institutions that had failed to recognise the risks involved it also posed a grave threat.

He made the comments as he addressed a conference, "Global Perspective: Our International Future", at the University of Notting- ham last week, held in honour of Sir Colin Campbell, the university's outgoing vice-chancellor.

Sir Graeme said: "It is not, in my judgment, all sweetness and light; there is this view among many that it is income that is important. The dependence of some institutions on overseas income streams has a risk associated with it that not all have recognised.

"Those who have used the building of partnerships and connections with other universities to make something that has genuine sustainability have least to risk.

"But there are some others out there in the sector who I do believe have not thought through their missions, involvements and commitments in as serious a way."

Sir Graeme said that internationalisation strategies were still seen in the sector by some as a "distraction" and insisted that, conducted in the right way, they were anything but. Touching on the changes that could occur to the sector as a whole, his advice was to avoid a kneejerk response.

"Without careful planning, the most probable outcome in dealing with increasing economic and political pressures will be a set of piecemeal, disjointed, ad hoc responses strongly dominated by local pragmatism," he said.

Acknowledging the increasing global competition, he questioned whether a rise in courses taught in English at European universities was a threat to the UK.

"I've explored that question with heads of universities in a number of settings, and the thing that comes through is that teaching in English in a non-Anglophone environment is actually not something most people see as pedagogically sound. If you are taught in English but live in Germany then the way in which you absorb the cultural and educational and pedagogical strengths of the Anglophonic experience must be different. So I think in a funny way the real needs of pedagogy are going to help us," he said.

As well as emphasising the importance of strategy, Sir Graeme also responded to those with doubts about the place of such long-term planning within a university.

He said: "I have encountered people who ask: how can I be academically free if I know where I am going? But I have often felt, in the rough and tumble of a senate meeting, that if one of my colleagues is reduced to using academic freedom for the defence of his argument, I am on very firm ground."

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