Where there is rivalry, let us bring harmony

Co-development vital to internationalised future, IAU general secretary tells Rachel Williams

June 21, 2012

Since becoming secretary general of the International Association of Universities around a decade ago, Eva Egron-Polak has continued to see internationalisation evolve from a marginal topic to a "mobilising policy" for transforming higher education across the globe.

But such opportunities bring risks in their train.

IAU's flagship global surveys - started by Ms Egron-Polak in 2003 and due to report again in 2014 - repeatedly highlight three major concerns: the brain drain of talent across borders; the increasing commercialisation of higher education; and an associated increase in poor-quality providers.

Last year, the organisation set up an ad hoc group to consider how to address these issues and others, including the exploitation of international students. The result was Affirming Academic Values in Internationalization of Higher Education: A Call for Action, a report published in April.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Ms Egron-Polak pointed out that the report was the third text the organisation had produced in this area. "It never hurts to repeat some key principles, but at the same time we need to move beyond them," she said.

Although she has been warned that the absence of a sanction-wielding body to enforce the document's conclusions could lead to institutions failing to take it seriously, she hopes that quality assurance agencies in individual countries will integrate the rules into their frameworks.

But what rules does the text try to establish? The first principle is thoughtful co-development, Ms Egron-Polak said.

"Even with the best intentions I've heard so many developing-country institutions say: 'We have a [partnership but it] serves our partner more than it serves us,'" she said.

Other common mistakes in the field include forcing foreign experts with a lack of local knowledge on to such institutions, rather than expending more effort on building local capacity and hiring local staff.

Competition has its limits

Affirming Academic Values also urges institutions not to focus exclusively on competition for reputation, higher ranking places or global brand-building at the expense of improving academic output.

"Branding exercises and forceful marketing campaigns can lead to...unscrupulous recruiting and unfair treatment of partners in other nations," Ms Egron-Polak warned.

"Such a competitive focus also carries the risk of leaving outside the process many institutions which are not among the strongest or most reputed, and potentially excluding students with great potential but who did not graduate from the best schools or come from families that can afford study-abroad opportunities."

The document also insists on the importance of treating international students with respect and integrity, she said, rather than simply as an income stream or people "who do research and don't get recognised".

The IAU role is to offer as much support as possible to universities to get internationalisation right.

In addition to the work of its ad hoc group, it is drawing up guidelines to help institutions produce ethical codes covering all aspects of their work.

This document will recommend that universities establish committees to scrutinise all external funding sources with potential ethical concerns.

But Ms Egron-Polak is as clear on what internationalisation should be about as what it should not: at its core, it is a learning process.

Her own background is a testament to this.

She was born in Prague but raised from the age of 12 in Canada after her Jewish parents, both concentration-camp survivors, moved the family after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

She studied at Carleton University in Ottawa, interspersed with stints in Europe.

Those formative years were the backdrop to a career devoted overwhelmingly to the cause of internationalisation: her first job was in furthering higher education in developing countries, and she spent almost 18 years at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the last 10 of them as vice-president responsible for international affairs.

Recalling one event from her long career, she remembered visiting a project to develop an oncology centre in a remote area of northern China 20 years ago.

She had been struck by the insistence of the Canadian academic running the centre that he had learned more there about patient care and medical practice than he had anywhere else.

"I am convinced that no matter what aspects of internationalisation we undertake, we always learn as much as we put in," she said. "And if we don't we're doing something really wrong."

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