'World class' means domestic diversity

September 12, 1997

WHAT does it mean to be "world class", the national objective for higher education recommended by the Dearing committee? The reasons for its vision of our universities becoming exponents of leading international practice in an integrated global economy are compelling. A nation's people as the only stable source of competitive advantage. Education and training consequently is the key investment, with skills and intellectual development the prime national resource.

Of course, other countries have long held this view, which is one reason why higher education itself is becoming more of an international service. The growing worldwide demand for university qualifications is increasingly capable of being satisfied across borders.

The strides in technologically- supported distance education by the United States and Australia, as well as by private interests drawn from the publishing, communications and entertainment industries, is a major challenge for the UK. They threaten the sizeable foreign earnings from our higher education. And the potential for a paucity of home-produced materials in the face of expanding production elsewhere also threatens long-term cultural and economic debilitation.

Dearing is surely right to agree that the UK still has a competitive communication and information technology base upon which to mount an effective challenge to the new imperialism. Yet it will require universities to generate strategic and project capabilities of a high order for this to be successful, as it will involve managing multinational and non-educational partnerships.

It is arguable that to be world class in both learning and research universities will need to be judged against a standard of international excellence. But if we have so much difficulty in a domestic context in establishing threshold or minimum standards, how much harder it will be to attempt this globally. Probably this does not matter. More likely world-class universities will resort to the tried and tested methods of peer review rather than standard matrices. They will know each other when they see each other. Peer acceptability will remain the basis for establishing both national and international claims to excellence The real problem is diversity. Or at least it would be if universities actually believed in it rather than muttering the word as a mantra. To establish first-class credentials on the world stage requires institutions to understand clearly and strategically what are their distinctive strengths and weaknesses.

The task then is to find like-minded and excellent proponents in other countries with whom to collaborate and seek their willingness to associate.

This will require increased intelligence on possible partners, as well as a further understanding of university groupings in other countries.

This raises a question not addressed by Dearing. To what extent can a multinational interest be a national interest? It is entirely possible that as UK universities combine in multinational consortia, the compelling motivations will be reputational and commercial, not the promotion of UK plc.

Dearing rightly points to the power of the global corporation as posing major challenges for national economies. Yet his report recognises potentially similar processes at work in the university sector (and encourages them), but without considering whether, in time, transnational education consortia would raise almost identical problems for governments to those posed by the economic conglomerates.

The Dearing vision to become world class is surely right. However, for institutions to succeed internationally will require them to come to terms with diversity in a domestic context.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside.

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