The ACU in Ottawa

August 14, 1998

The Association of Commonwealth Universities holds its five-yearly conference for chancellors, vice-chancellors and chairs of council in Ottawa this week.

About 600 representatives from more than 470 affiliated universities drawn from 34 of the Commonwealth's 54 member states will take part in a series of discussions around the theme of leadership and the management of change.

Universities from the newer Commonwealth members are attending. They include two that diverge from the obvious criteria of membership - predominance of the English language and an historical association with Britain or an established Commonwealth nation.

Mozambique and Cameroon are two nations admitted to the Commonwealth despite their association with different linguistic groups and limited links with Britain.

Their presence demonstrates the shifts within the Commonwealth away from the dominance of Britain and its older associates, which is reflected within the ACU. Although the organisation was born of empire and is still based in London, cultural changes have accelerated with the wider availability of new communications technologies. While the economic variations between developed and developing nations remain, the concept of parity of esteem is reinforced.

Much more has happened since the last full gathering of the ACU in 1993. The presence of South African universities as full members for the first time since readmission to the Commonwealth is underscored by the pivotal position in the discussions given to Mphele Ramphela - the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and South Africa's first black female vice-chancellor.

The probable presence of Nigeria's vice-chancellors reflects the dilemma that the painful process of transition to democracy poses for the Commonwealth.

Student mobility - at both undergraduate and research level - continues to cause anxieties among those who see the rather depressing statistics as an isolated indicator of the health of Commonwealth education and research programmes.

But as the costs of shipping students from the developing to the developed world for periods of a year or more escalate, creative thinking is leading to better use of resources, encouraging short-term mobility for undergraduates and more use of the new technologies at research level.

Cover illustration: Chloe Grech's silk screen print, Cactus, Dog 1, was exhibited at the Royal Commonwealth Society this summer.

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