Think you belong on the world stage? Think again

November 28, 2003

Very few UK universities that describe themselves as 'global' institutions merit the term, argues Eric Thomas

Thousands of universities worldwide have built up substantial and diverse international collaborations - but not every one of those can be "global".

What are the extra factors that distinguish a "global" university? On a recent trip to the US, I realised that we used the term constantly, although no one could define precisely what that meant. An understanding of what we mean is a prerequisite of informed debate about the role of universities in a global environment.

As far as most Japanese are concerned, there are only two universities in the UK - Oxford and Cambridge. Most of the people I met in the US did not even know where Bristol was, never mind that it has a university. This reality raises the question as to whether any other institution in the UK can honestly claim to be global. If you wish to be considered to be in this elite, it is almost a sine qua non that your peers and national policy-makers should see you as that.

Comprehensive excellence in research, teaching, academic staff, facilities, leadership and governance is a minimum requirement. In the UK, there are a number of institutions where quality of research, teaching and academic staff is high enough to qualify them as global players. But there is not one university in the UK that can match the facilities at the leading US institutions, and that precipitates a serious question about UK universities' capacity to globalise.

It is essential that a global university is independent, has good governance and is well led. These characteristics are clear for many UK and US institutions but not so consistent in Europe. Even for US universities, independence may be an ephemeral concept. Some of the state universities have their student numbers and fee levels set by politicians, which means they must be careful about the number of overseas students they enrol.

Pursuit of innovative global research is the prime characteristic - without it, a university cannot claim to be global. Global research is not about just more "connectivity" - that is, putting people together in different ways, maximising effective use of logistics, video seminar series and summer institutes. All these may lead to new ways of thinking and collaborating, but they are not "global" characteristics. The global part comes in the marshalling of these universities' intellectual and logistical resources to address global problems and questions in new ways.

The size of the endeavour, the size and centrality of the questions and the multiplicity of partners are crucial factors. This means asking academic staff to think in new ways, to see different horizons. This is not intellectually easy. Most of us are much more comfortable with reductionist science. It is fiercely difficult to identify, never mind pose, the central integrating question. The "connectivity" benefits will be an essential mechanism for identifying and posing these questions, but it is essential that that connectivity be identified for this purpose and not just seen as a good in its own right.

A global university will have global distribution of its educational material and programmes. The majority of this will be provision of high-quality programmes that will attract individuals who wish to make themselves employable anywhere in the world. The market will be predominantly in continuing professional development, and it will be almost exclusively web-based.

A colleague recently said that he had worked at three universities and that what differentiated the acknowledged global player from the others was the frequency of visits from a diversity of academics from outside the UK. In other words, you have what other people across the globe want to see. The academic staff must contain nationals of other countries who have recognised the opportunities your university offers. And it is essential there be a diverse international student body.

Academic staff of a global university will be helping global institutions formulate policy - advising the United Nations about solutions to global poverty, for example. Chief executives and senior managers in global businesses will interact and collaborate with organisations that they consider to be punching at the same weight.

There are a number of UK institutions that have all or nearly all of these characteristics in part, but none that has all of them in full. Comparison with US universities is sobering. We have a way to go before we can confidently say we have a number of global universities, and it is vital that we invest to get there.

Eric Thomas is vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol and chair of the Worldwide University Network of UK, US, Chinese and European universities.

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