Three wise rectors

December 22, 1995

That the heads of three renowned universities effectively representing the great monotheistic religions should choose the period before Christmas to promote the role of academics in building peace and understanding in place of conflict and ignorance has a certain biblical resonance.

Scholars, such as those of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, the Jesuit's Gregorian University in Rome and Cairo's Al-Azhar University, whose rectors spoke in united voice prior to meeting in Naples, have always taken pride in transcending national boundaries in their search for knowledge. Since the Middle Ages universities have thrived on their international links. Dutch, German and Italian universities joined in a network of scholarship which for decades bridged empires, cultures and language.

Arab scholars carried Islamic art, literature and mathematical principles around the Mediterranean and as far as Spain. But that pursuit of knowledge was originally for its own sake, a quest for the great truths.

The growth in the power of the state in the 18th and 19th centuries restricted universities' outlook. Dependence on the state for finance hastened the process. Now the search for funding sources has spurred universities to look outwards again, as has the growth of para-national organisations (for Britain principally the European Union). But non-financial concerns have also fuelled the rediscovery of universities' international role within the EU's Erasmus programme, now absorbed into Socrates. Initiatives came not at institutional level but from individual academics who saw the potential for introducing an international component into their courses and who took on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the EU. It is vital that their enthusiasm is not lost in the transition to Socrates, with its transfer of focus from individual programmes to institutional agreements.

Beyond the confines of the EU, universities in Spain and Portugal are leading the way in an Erasmus-like exchange of students and staff with universities in South and Central America. Even though the cultural gap is at its widest between northern Europe and South America, the Alpha programme has uncovered much common ground which is being explored with the introduction of management strategies which can be exported and adapted to South American conditions. Next year the final piece of the Alpha jigsaw falls into place with the first student placements.

In the Far East, where the notion of the international undergraduate has always been strong, the new player on the pitch is Australia, keen not only to recruit students to its own universities but to deliver quality distance learning through the latest technologies.

In Africa, the reconstruction of the post-apartheid universities is drawing on international experience to build a uniquely African system, appropriate to South Africa's special circumstances and needs. Inspiration from the rest of the continent is as important an ingredient as the most aggressively marketed solutions promoted by western universities.

Technologies developed for "defence" now bring academics together in the ability to confer and transmit ideas free of filtering by state authorities. The Internet is effectively recreating the spirit of the journeying scholar without the discomfort and inefficiency of travel.

But student recruitment is still tainted with the whiff of unscrupulous competition. The British Council's new code of practice for universities' recruiting activities overseas recognises the danger to the international reputation of Britain's universities posed by unfettered and uncontrolled competition. While the council has said it has not introduced sanctions because of cases of abuse, but simply to provide would-be students with a guarantee of quality, doubts remain about some British institutions competing in overseas markets.

But is all the flurry of international activity only about the marketplace? How much of it is a return to the mediaeval values, of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and how much a squalid 20th-century scramble for new markets and sales opportunities?

The ideals expressed in Naples by the three universities of co-operation around the Mediterranean are far loftier - and they are reflected in the activities of many British academics quietly helping to find solutions to the world's pressing problems.

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