Soros university network ‘to build resilience and sustainability’

Vice-chancellor of new global alliance says network will involve ‘multilayered cooperation’ and different levels of membership

February 11, 2020
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Many universities have formed international institutional networks in recent years in a bid to boost cross-border research collaboration and joint degree programmes. These alliances tend to involve cooperation in just a handful of areas – a single degree or exchange programme or a specific research project linked to a global problem.

But a new network aims to create a much more comprehensive partnership between universities across the world, involving simultaneously taught courses, shared curricula, virtual and in-person exchanges, joint research projects and collaborative civic engagement activities, all across a wide number of areas.

The Open Society University Network (OSUN) launched last month after the announcement of a $1 billion (£763 million) gift from the philanthropist George Soros. It was set up by the Central European University (CEU), founded by Mr Soros, and Bard College in New York.

Jonathan Becker, vice-chancellor of OSUN and executive vice-president of Bard College, said that, unlike other university networks, OSUN would include thinktanks and cultural institutions, have a truly global reach and feature more “breadth and depth of engagement”.

“What makes this different is the degree of integration of all of these different aspects of education into one enduring partnership. Anyone involved in international affairs has thousands of MOUs [memoranda of understanding] sitting somewhere which don’t mean anything. Many of us have a programme or two with a partner,” he said.

“It’s not one research project, it’s not a bilateral project, it’s not an exchange; it is all of those things boiled into one in a multilayered cooperation.”

Fourteen universities will participate in the first phase of the collaboration, but the roster was “a growing list”, said Professor Becker, who added that there would be “different layers of membership”.

OSUN will ultimately include a “core group” of about 15 members, which will be involved in “all aspects” of collaboration. Other universities will be “project partners” and work only on specific initiatives, while thinktanks and cultural institutions will be associate members.

Professor Becker said the $1 billion donation “will not be spent immediately, but over time and in response to proposals and needs”. Members of the network will be able to submit proposals for funding for specific projects, which will be reviewed by a committee that will make recommendations to a board.

As well as offering joint degree programmes, OSUN will provide simultaneously taught “network courses”, bringing students and scholars from different countries together with in-person and online discussions.

Professor Becker taught a network course on civic engagement in partnership with four other institutions last term. Although the course content at each university varied somewhat, a significant share overlapped. There were also several assignments aimed at promoting engagement between students in different nations.

“We partnered institutions in twos and threes. During the semester, we had points where students came together synchronously and then other work in which students were engaging with each other asynchronously…We’ve been experimenting with these over the last few years, and what we’ve realised is more engagement is better,” he said.

Some of the students on the course will present their civic engagement projects at a network conference in Budapest next month, where 10 institutions will be participating. Students will also take part in exchange programmes, while the academics who have taught the course at different institutions are discussing the potential for a joint research project.

“That is what I mean by breadth and depth,” Professor Becker said. “We’re trying to reinforce and build and have multiple points of contact.”

The network’s core members will also develop overlapping general education curricula and sequences of courses to allow students to move more easily between universities and programmes.

Professor Becker argued that this work would help some institutions to further “decolonise” their curriculum.

He added that the benefit of deeper and longer-term partnerships was that they helped institutions to “endure challenges that might emerge”.

Although OSUN might not be able to prevent authoritarian rulers from forcing universities out of their countries, as was the case at CEU in Hungary, Professor Becker said he hoped the network could “mitigate some of the damage” caused by such developments.

He cited the example of a refugee programme that was based at CEU in Budapest but was relocated to Bard College Berlin after falling foul of Hungarian regulations.

“The network brings resilience and sustainability,” Professor Becker said. “We are trying to build this ecosystem across these multiple institutions, which will allow us to be resilient, to regenerate, [and allow] ideas to flow across the network.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com


Universities participating in the first phase of the Open Society University Network

Al-Quds University, Palestine
American University in Bulgaria
American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan
Arizona State University, US
Ashesi University, Ghana
Bard College, US
Bard College Berlin, Germany
Birkbeck, University of London, UK
BRAC University, Bangladesh
Central European University, Austria
European Humanities University, Lithuania
Fulbright University Vietnam
Sciences Po, France
SOAS University of London, UK

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Print headline: Soros alliance to open up engagement worldwide

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