Posted by: Jurusan Manajemen | October 13, 2009

Working together to become ‘world class’ universities

MaerkwellA paper by Professor Don Markwell
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), The University of Western Australia for the ASEAN University Network Rectors’ Conference, Brunei Darussalam, 1 December 2008

Increasingly, in the competitive global ‘knowledge economy’ of the 21st century, the economic and social prospects of countries depend on the quality of their ‘human capital’ – how well educated their people are. So the quality of educational institutions and systems at all levels of education, from pre-school to university and indeed lifelong learning opportunities beyond that, will significantly impact on a country’s fortunes. In this context, countries and regions (such as the European Union and increasingly ASEAN) wish to have ‘world class universities’ and ‘world class university systems’, and individual universities wish to be seen as ‘world class’.[1] One of the many strategies used by institutions for achieving this competitive purpose is, perhaps paradoxically, to collaborate with others. And, perhaps also paradoxically, such collaboration can be seen as an indicator of its attainment.

Taking a less instrumentalist view, Geoffrey Boulton and Colin Lucas have recently argued:[2]

Academic scholars have maintained networks of international links since the early days of universities, long before the phenomenon of globalisation ushered in by the recent communications revolution. That revolution has destroyed geographical barriers to communication and interaction, such that we now live in a novel world of virtual proximity, global perception and awareness … [I]rrespective of the outcome [of globalisation], the opportunity for universities to play an independent, mediating role in this changing world is clear. Internationally, they are located in different cultural milieus, but they share a common ethos that permits them to collaborate across cultural divides and to deepen in their students a sympathy for and understanding of the cultural assumptions and the complexities of the modern world. Over the last decade, universities have begun to develop international corporate links and networks that are increasingly used in structured ways to intensify dialogue, to articulate educational collaboration and to undertake joint research on major global problems. A convergent trend, that of increasing student mobility, should be seized on by them as the basis for the common task of educating the rising generation as global citizens, rather than merely as contributors to a university’s finances or to the national workforce. These changes in behaviour, the rational and humane values that universities increasingly share, and the democratising force that they represent, also make it timely for them to find a common voice in intervening in international debate about global issues.

Within ASEAN, collaboration between ASEAN countries and universities has been clearly identified as important for human capital development. Whatever the motivation, a core question for this conference is what kinds of international collaborations – what kinds of collaborative activities, and with whom – will help universities within ASEAN countries to become increasingly ‘world class’. This paper does not answer that question fully; it aims to stimulate thoughts which may assist ASEAN university leaders and others to reflect on it.

I am conscious, as you will be, of the wide diversity of universities within ASEAN countries, and that the aspirations and opportunities institutions have will vary enormously – between and, in many cases, within countries. Coming from a focus largely on research-intensive universities, some of what I have to say will seem relevant to some institutions and not to others. International collaboration may at first glance seem more relevant to research or student mobility than to the equity and access outreach activities of a university which is focussed primarily on social inclusion (e.g. on giving access to a university education to students who are the first in their family ever to go to university). But I would argue that there is much for institutions in one country to learn from how institutions in others handle issues of equity, access, and social inclusion. To give just one example: I was very interested to meet colleagues from two Vietnamese universities and the Vietnamese government recently visiting the University of Western Australia to discuss our activities in creating educational opportunities for Indigenous people – an issue of concern to them in their own context.

Before discussing international collaboration further, we need to consider what is meant by ‘world class universities’, how we know what a ‘world class’ university is, and what their attributes are.

What do we mean by ‘world class universities’?

The term ‘world class’ is not completely clear. Does it mean ‘among the best in the world’? If so, how high among ‘the best’ must it be? (Leave aside for the moment the questions of ‘best at what’, or how we identify what ‘the best’ are.) Or does ‘world class’ mean something more like ‘what would be respectable enough in any country in the world’? Whatever it means, it implies some international standard of excellence, however high that standard might be, against which institutions are assessed (perhaps quantitatively measured).

As we all know, it is commonly said that the purpose of a university is the conservation, extension, and dissemination of knowledge. Put another way, it is commonly said that a university has three purposes, and academics within it have three fields of activity also: research, teaching, and service or community engagement (sometimes referred to as ‘knowledge transfer’). But we also know that the purposes of universities vary considerably. Some are essentially teaching institutions only, with little, if any, focus on research. A smaller number are essentially research institutes with little, if any, focus on teaching. The extent and nature of the focus on service or community engagement varies greatly. The ways in which institutions balance their research, teaching and service objectives varies over time. What it means to be ‘world class’ is necessarily related to the purposes or mission of the institution: ‘“world class” at what?’ is the natural question.

There is clearly growing competition between universities to be seen as ‘world class’. Just over three years ago The Economist said that ‘the most important recent development in the world of higher education has been the creation of a super-league of global universities that are now engaged in a battle for intellectual talent and academic prestige’.[3]  All of my experience, before and since, suggests to me that The Economist is correct that there is such a battle. It is a battle in which institutions around the world, not simply those that are currently in ‘a super-league’, are competing for ‘intellectual talent and academic prestige’ and more – including competing for:

  • the talent of academic and general staff;
  • the talent of students from undergraduates to doctoral students;
  • prestige as teaching institutions;
  • prestige as research institutions, including awards for staff, citations for research publications, and so on;
  • prestige as institutions that engage and enrich the communities they serve; and
  • resources from public and private sources, national and international.

In the last five years or so, thinking about university quality has increasingly been dominated by reference to rankings of universities. The two most prominent, but not the only, international rankings are from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and from The Times Higher Education (previously known as The Times Higher Education Supplement). The Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking is essentially a research ranking. The Times Higher ranking is an attempt to rank universities on a wider range of factors, including peer and employer review – but the methodology is even more questionable, and with an extraordinarily low response rate to the surveys on which the peer review is based, and with extraordinary volatility in ranking, is in my view not to be taken seriously as a ranking.

There have been rankings within individual countries for rather longer – most obviously, rankings such as the US News and World Report rankings within the United States. Here, too, methodology is questionable; the rankings rate universities on criteria which might or might not align with the actual purposes of the institutions being ranked; and, in part for that reason, there is evolution in the national rankings.  In the United States, this includes the development of rankings, such as that of the Washington Monthly, based on very different criteria, and producing strikingly different results.

I do not think that any existing ranking adequately captures what it means to be a ‘world class university’. I expect that we will see continuing evolution and development of rankings, so that those of a generation from now will be significantly different from what we have now.

The Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking was, in the words of its creators, developed ‘in order to find out the gap between Chinese universities and world-class universities’.[4]  As we know, the leading Chinese universities are committing immense resources – some of them provided by government – to rising rapidly through the global rankings. This appears a formidable phenomenon. We also know that other universities, including in Northeast Asia and within ASEAN, are focussed on raising their international standing.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) uses in all its materials the motto ‘Achieving international excellence’. It does this, not only to describe what it thinks it is doing, but to focus itself on the need to do so. The University of Western Australia has an explicit goal of becoming one of the top 50 universities in the world within 50 years. By this, we do not mean being recognised on a particular ranking that currently exists, but by whatever are the generally accepted measures of that time. Our hope is that the rankings of universities then will give full weight to the range of desirable qualities of universities.

At UWA, we have undertaken three pieces of relevant research into the attributes of the world’s ‘top 50’ universities: (1) educational, (2) research, and (3) community engagement.[5]  These papers are contributing to strategic and operational planning within the University, including to specific projects such as the University’s Review of Course Structures, which has recently proposed significant reform of the University’s undergraduate and postgraduate courses.[6] We are undertaking research on the trajectories by which some of the world’s leading universities achieved that position, hoping to reveal more clearly the factors that make for success on that institutional journey.

The UWA studies of the educational, research, and community engagement attributes of the world’s ‘top 50’ universities make use of the universities as identified in the currently existing rankings – in particular, the Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking – as being ‘top 50’. But by identifying their attributes broadly – that is, identifying attributes of those universities which go beyond those on which they have been ranked – the UWA studies draw attention to the fact that there are desirable, even essential, attributes of universities which are not captured in those rankings.

It is often pointed out in Australia that there is a difference between a university being ‘world class’ and having ‘a world class university system’. Some people have been thought to support policies that would lead to one university, or a small number of universities, being designated as the country’s leading prospect(s) for ‘world class’ status, and being favoured with resources and perhaps with other policies that work to maximise their chances of ‘world class’ status. Others favour policies which encourage the development of ‘world class’ universities, but leave universities to compete as to which will achieve this, rather than having governments ‘pick a winner’ in advance. Others say that the focus on having one ‘world class university’ or a small number of such institutions is misconceived; that what will serve the country best is having a ‘world class system’ of universities, with the attributes of the collection of institutions being more important than the attributes of a single one or of a small number. Others respond to this that it is not possible to have a ‘world class university system’ without having at least one genuinely ‘world class’ university. This last is my own view. It seems to me that, now or later, this same issue arises for ASEAN countries.

In some of the discussions of becoming ‘world class’, it is sometimes implicitly assumed that what is meant is to be of the standard of the universities that are generally regarded as the very best in the world – the top ten or so, such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, MIT, and others of that super-league. But this is too narrow a view of ‘world class’ – eliminating many very fine institutions, and frankly giving almost all institutions no chance of ever becoming, on this definition, ‘world class’. Even when a university talks of becoming ‘one of the top 50 in the world’, or the ‘top 30’, or whatever it may be, there is a tendency for people to assume that what is meant is actually to be among the ‘top 10’. This implicit assumption can lead people to think that the ambition is unrealistic, and should be abandoned. It is, I think, much easier and more realistic for an institution of high quality now to aspire to be in the top 30–50 universities than it is for it to aspire to be in the top, say, 15 or 20. Part of what we are doing at UWA is – as well as looking at the attributes of the top 10 or so universities – increasingly identifying attributes of universities in the range of 30 to 50, attributes which can help us to think about what distinctive attributes of excellence we will aspire to have, and how we will achieve the ‘top 50’ objective. We are also examining the resources available to the top 30-50 universities, to help us consider what resources we need to acquire to make our aspiration feasible.

What, then, are the characteristics of a ‘world class’ university?

I would like to consider the characteristics of a ‘world class’ university under the headings of education, research, and service or community engagement.

The educational attributes of a ‘world class’ university ultimately, it seems to me, come down to these six:

  1. high quality of students;
  2. high quality of academic staff;
  3. high quality of courses;
  4. high quality of teaching;
  5. a high degree of student engagement both in their studies and in the extra-curricular life of the university community; and
  6. a strong emphasis on equity, access, and diversity.

In previous papers, I have identified, as a sort of ideal type, the attributes that I identify in the finest undergraduate institutions in the world (such as the ‘top 10’ institutions I have previously named) – remembering, of course, that there is diversity among the leading institutions of the world, but recognising that the world’s finest institutions also have many attributes in common.[7]

They have concentrations of the very best students from around their country and indeed from around the world. Generally these students come together in a residential college community, usually in a campus of considerable beauty. Students benefit from individual mentoring or advising from senior academics. There is a high quality of academic tuition, with – because the best education is interactive – an emphasis on small group teaching and individual attention, by high-quality academic staff who – whether in research-intensive universities or the leading liberal arts colleges – work, sometimes with great difficulty and sometimes with great benefits, to combine research and teaching. At its best, this teaching stresses genuine mastery of material, independent thought, and clear communication. Face-to-face teaching is, of course, increasingly supplemented – but not replaced – by online provision. The focus is generally non-vocational at the undergraduate level, providing some form of liberal education.

In the ‘top 10’ (or so) institutions I am describing, there is a sense of engagement in a rich intellectual and public debate outside the classroom, strong attention to student welfare and pastoral care, and concern for the development of character and values. There are rich opportunities for extra-curricular activities of a high quality – be they in sport, music, theatre, politics, religion, community service, or more – from which students gain much in their personal development. This is helped by the strong sense of cohort – of belonging to the Class of 2012, or whatever it may be – sharing its journey together through university years. All this generally takes place in a university or college of what would be widely considered only moderate size (smaller than very many other universities), and with a low ratio of students to academic staff.

What I have just described is, as I said, an ideal type of a ‘top 10’ undergraduate institution. Its value, I think, is to help us identify attributes we will, or will not, ourselves seek to develop. This ‘ideal type’ is, of course, of a campus university and puts emphasis on the ultimate immersive student experience on campus – the integration of living and learning in a residential environment. But we could adapt the ideal to describe a distance education institution, with students perhaps having their connection with it through learning materials passing through the mail, or in cyberspace. Or it could be a commuter rather than a residential university.

The research attributes of ‘world class’ universities are implicitly identified by the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings.[8]  The SJTU ranking is based on

  1. alumni winning major international awards (i.e. Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals) – which, at a very high degree of abstraction, is said to be a proxy for the quality of education offered by the institution;
  2. staff winning major international awards (i.e. Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals) – which, again at a very high degree of abstraction, is said to reflect the quality of academic staff;
  3. highly cited researchers in 21 major research fields;
  4. articles published in selected top journals (namely, Nature and Science);
  5. articles indexed by major citation indexes (namely, Science Citation Index and Social Science Citation Index); and
  6. research performance per capita

You will detect that these criteria are meant to indicate (1) the quality of education offered, (2) the quality of academic staff, (3) the research output of the institution, and (4) the size of the institution.

Other ways of measuring research quality include, for example:

  1. completions of Higher Degrees by Research (i.e. research Master and, especially, Doctoral degrees);
  2. publications by researchers – which may be raw numbers of publications, or of publications by category, including with ratings of journals;
  3. research income won in competitive grant processes;
  4. research income obtained from other sources – including internationally, from business, etc;
  5. recognition of researchers by national and international academies or other prestigious professional bodies; and
  6. patents gained, or other indicators of the potential application of research outputs.

Above all, then, the attribute being focussed on is quality of research output. Thought must be given to how to take account of the extent of research output (and the relationship between quality and quantity), and its impact.

As well as the SJTU global research ranking, there are, of course, within various countries efforts to assess and even rank universities and departments within them on their research effort. Perhaps the best known is the British Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Hong Kong has had its RAE. Australia has recently scrapped one such embryonic assessment exercise (RQF – Research Quality Framework) and is busily developing an alternative, ERA (the Excellence for Research in Australia initiative).

The service or community engagement attributes of ‘world class’ universities are less easily encapsulated. Such activities include activities which go under titles such as ‘community outreach’, ‘knowledge transfer’, ‘community partnerships’, and ‘social inclusion’. This may include programs or activities which, for example,

  • invite members of the wider community into the cultural and sporting offerings of the institution (e.g. its art galleries, museums, libraries, or concerts or theatrical performances, or sporting facilities and/or activities);
  • involve members of the wider community in public lectures, conferences, or the like;
  • offer teaching by university academic staff to people in the wider community (e.g. in continuing education programs);
  • involve students and/or staff volunteering in community service activities;
  • involve academic staff using their expertise to help solve community problems; and
  • engage with businesses, assisting them with innovation and the solution of problems.

It is evident from the UWA study of the community engagement and educational attributes of the world’s ‘top 50’ universities that

  • such activities are extensively undertaken by such universities;
  • that there are significant differences in the emphases they place on them and that these vary by country;
  • that one area of variation is the extent to which student involvement in such activities is seen as important in the educational program of the university; and
  • that some universities actively use such activities as means of enhancing their local, national, and even international reputations.

Some issues for ‘world class’ universities

Before turning to how collaboration can help universities become ‘world class’, I think it may be helpful to identify several issues which the world’s leading universities generally seem to confront. There are six I particularly wish to identify:

  1. the ‘war for talent’;
  2. the need for more resources;
  3. review of areas of teaching and research;
  4. enhancing the all-round student learning experience;
  5. equity and diversity; and
  6. internationalisation and globalisation.

I will take these briefly in turn.[9]

First, there is what the management consultants McKinsey, controversially but I think without exaggeration, call ‘the war for talent’ – the competition to attract, develop, and retain the most outstanding faculty and academic leaders, and students, anywhere in the world, including increased recognition of family circumstances as a factor in career decisions, and renewed emphasis on developing one’s own junior faculty members. The world’s finest universities seek the very best people in the world, and invest in them. This is reflected in what I think of as ‘the Harvard question’: who is the very best person in the world in this field, and how do we get them?

Secondly, there is the need for ever-greater resources, which governments are unlikely adequately to provide, and so need to be drawn increasingly from student fees, especially domestic student fees – wherever possible combined with scholarships and loans – and from major philanthropic support from actively-engaged alumni and other benefactors. Philanthropic support is proving increasingly important in universities in many countries, including in Europe, Asia, and Australia, and there are significant efforts, including by governments as well as universities themselves, to encourage it.

Thirdly, partly driven by developments in science, technology, and globalisation, there is review of the areas in which the university teaches and researches, most especially to ensure an inter- or multi-disciplinary approach where it is needed, as indeed it is from stem cell research to neuroscience to the study of global poverty to non-traditional security and beyond – all topics, and there are many others, that require expertise from across a range of sciences, and social sciences and humanities, including ethics. An interesting case is the need to understand various world religions if current international conflicts and cultural diversity within countries are to be understood, and the advantage in this to those institutions, such as several leading American and British universities, with strength in religious studies. How to balance the need for strong research within disciplines with the need to encourage and remove obstacles to multi-disciplinary research is demanding careful attention. How to refresh for the 21st century the traditional US vision of liberal undergraduate education, weakened by creeping vocationalism and other forces, is a major focus for many leading educators and institutions, many of whom believe the need for such liberal education has never been greater than it is today, in a world of rapid change, global forces, polarisation of opinion and inadequate tolerance and humility, and pressures for instant action rather than sustained reflection. These and other concerns are reflected in reviews of curricula and course structures in many universities in many countries, including at the University of Western Australia and several other Australian universities.

Fourthly, partly in response to criticisms in the US – including from such figures as Derek Bok[10] – of the alleged decline in quality of university education, there has been renewed focus on the academic and broader student experience, be it through reducing student-to-staff ratios and class sizes, or curriculum reform, or improving students’ writing skills, or re-strengthening out-of-classroom connections between faculty and students, or providing high-quality campus centres for students, or increasing online support, or increasing the emphasis on students engaging in community service, or encouraging student engagement in a variety of extra-curricular activities (including trying to achieve balance in what can be – should be – the very positive role of sport in universities), or enhancing the performing and visual arts in students’ lives, or grappling – for the most part unsuccessfully, I think – with problems in student culture and behaviour. Harvard’s January 2007 ‘A Compact to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Harvard’ is just one noteworthy step in the increasingly global focus on enhancing teaching and learning, and the all-round student learning experience.[11]

Fifthly, there is in many ‘world class’ universities a strong emphasis on equity and diversity, including efforts, of uneven seriousness and success, to promote gender equality, ethnic and religious diversity, socio-economic diversity, and equal rights for LGBTs – the widely-used term for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered. Very many co-educational institutions retain essentially masculine cultures, and have not yet achieved the thorough transformation needed to have cultures of genuine equality. Some have embarked on wide-ranging programs of profound change. Reflecting concerns internationally for equity and social inclusion in higher education (which concerns have been increasingly prominent in Australia, including since the election of the Rudd Labor government in 2007), there is also much concern in the US that, despite strenuous efforts and the expenditure of much money on scholarships and financial aid, top universities and colleges often remain too much, as the president of one of them has described his own to me, a ‘rich people’s place’. Efforts to increase the rate of participation of the relevant age cohort in higher education are important in ASEAN countries, as they are in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere.

Sixthly, there is in ‘world class’ universities a strong focus on internationalisation and globalisation, including seeking to develop a coherent strategy for all the rich dimensions of global engagement. Internationalisation increasingly means taking a global perspective on all matters and acting as an international, as well as a local, state, and national, institution – including

  • setting high international standards in everything,
  • encouraging international, intercultural and inter-faith awareness throughout the university community,
  • ensuring a culture in which people of all backgrounds feel equally welcome,
  • seeking faculty and students from around the world,
  • encouraging language studies,
  • encouraging international experience by students and staff alike,
  • curriculum that genuinely reflects international experience and global issues,
  • international community service projects,
  • alumni activities around the world, and more.

International collaborations of various kinds play an increasingly important part in such internationalisation.

There is also much focus on the study and debate of issues related to globalisation, and also seeking to ensure that universities have expertise on all major regions of the world, including increasingly China, India, and the Middle East, and on major religions. While some universities are interested in teaching overseas, many are very cautious about overseas campuses.

There are, of course, other issues or trends in leading universities one could discuss. One is debate about the proper relationship between universities, the marketplace, and entrepreneurship. It is interesting how much attention some ‘world class’ universities are giving to their electronic presence and aggressive electronic projection, as part both of their focused communications strategies, and their thinking about how to use IT for external and internal projection as well as for enhancing education – for example, ensuring all faculty members and senior administrators have full CVs on their websites, with links to all their publications that are available electronically; using email for regular and attractive communications with alumni; ensuring their websites are of such quality and easy navigability as befits what is the University’s most important publication by far; and using a portal within the institution as the electronic embodiment of the University’s all-round educational offering to its students.

Forms of international collaboration

If I have spent so much time discussing the nature and attributes of ‘world class’ universities, and issues before them, it is partly because I think that the path to becoming a ‘world class’ university, and for continuous improvement generally, depends upon the clear-minded and ambitious strategic and operational planning of each individual institution, and on the methodical and effective implementation of those plans – all this, of course, within the context in which that university operates.

One of the strategies for continuous improvement is international collaboration. There is a wide variety of multilateral and bilateral collaborations that are possible and increasingly prominent. These include:

  1. regional harmonisation programs – such as the work underway to develop a European Higher Education Area, of which the so-called Bologna process is the most famous part, and the idea of a ‘higher education common space in Southeast Asia’ which SEAMEO RIHED has been exploring[12];
  2. regional groupings of universities – such as the ASEAN University Network, or the League of European Research Universities;
  3. wider international alliances or groupings of universities – such as Universitas 21, or the Worldwide Universities Network, or the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, or – to take an older example – the Association of Commonwealth Universities;
  4. benchmarking activities – including the comparison of data to assess relative performance or to guide strategic deliberations (e.g. sharing student and staff evaluation survey data as a way of comparing the performance of universities);
  5. other collaboration in quality assurance – such as participation in review processes for other universities, such as reviews of parts of the University, or of degree programs (there is also collaboration between quality assurance agencies in different countries, including through the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education);
  6. sharing ideas – arrangements involving exchanges of information and ideas, for example between university leaders with responsibility in many specific areas, to facilitate learning from each other’s experience can be extremely valuable, including in strategic planning;
  7. multilateral or bilateral research collaborations – for example, involving joint laboratories in two or more universities, or participation in projects such as, say, the human genome project;
  8. collaborations in research supervision – for example, involving cotutelle arrangements for PhDs leading to the award of the degree by both partner institutions at which the doctoral student is enrolled and supervised;
  9. collaboration in coursework teaching programs – such as the joint or dual degrees which are increasingly being offered by partner universities, with students spending part of their degree program in one university and part at the other, resulting in a degree that is jointly badged or in the award of two degrees, one from each institution[13];
  10. collaborative e-learning – e.g. teaching using ICT so that classes conducted at one institution are made available to students at another or others;
  11. ‘information networking’ – such as the joint development of shared computing or other technological capacities, and inter-library collaboration (such as through AUNILO – ASEAN University Network Inter-Library Online[14]);
  12. visiting scholar programs – including faculty exchange programs, both for research and teaching purposes;
  13. shared professional development activities for staff;
  14. study abroad and student exchange programs;
  15. collaboration in student extracurricular activities – such as for sporting competitions, international community service activities, and so on;
  16. collaboration in service activities – such as when two universities partner together to assist a third university in its capacity-building (increasingly suggested in collaborations between Chinese ‘985’ universities and overseas universities, working to assist weaker regional Chinese universities);
  17. collaboration in moneymaking ventures – such as the development for revenue-generation purposes by Universitas 21 of U21 Global, the Singapore-based online graduate school;
  18. collaboration in advocacy – including of the kind that Boulton and Lucas recommended, universities finding ‘a common voice in intervening in international debate about global issues’.

Many of these types of collaboration are inter-connected, of course. Most obviously, some of the individually mentioned collaborative activities often take place within the regional or wider international groupings of universities also referred to. The collaborations can embrace any part of a university, including any academic discipline and any administrative function.

It might be added that there are further aspects of collaboration that are much more likely to take place between universities within a single country rather than internationally – including policy advocacy to their national government, shared marketing activities overseas or even locally (e.g. in outreach to under-represented sections of the community), and shared events overseas for the alumni of any of the country’s universities. National collaboration between universities may well be differentiated by sector (e.g. research-intensive universities especially collaborating with each other, technological universities with each other, etc), as well as their being bilateral collaborations of all sorts and collaboration on some issues under a single national universities body (e.g. Universities UK, Universities Australia).

The forms of international collaboration are evolving. Jane Knight has identified the following aspects of internationalisation as a ‘formidable force for change’, many (though not all) of which relate directly to international collaborations:[15]

  • The creation of new international networks and consortia
  • The growing numbers of students, professors, and researchers participating in academic mobility schemes
  • The increase in the number of courses, programs, and qualifications that focus on comparative and international themes
  • More emphasis on developing international/intercultural and global competencies
  • Stronger interest in international themes and collaborative research
  • Steep rise in the number of crossborder delivery of academic programs
  • More interest and concern with international and regional rankings of universities
  • An increase in campus-based extracurricular activities with an international or multicultural component
  • The investment in recruiting foreign students and dependence on their income
  • The rise in the number of joint or double degrees
  • Growth in the numbers and types of for-profit crossborder education providers
  • The expansion in partnerships, franchises, branch campuses
  • The establishment of new national, regional, and international organizations focused on international education.

Some benefits, problems, and lessons of collaboration

There are, of course, many benefits of international collaborative activities, and these will vary with the activity and context. Such benefits include:

  1. focussing the minds of institutional leaders and others – including staff at all levels, and members of governance bodies – on the international standards by which institutions need to operate, thus helping to raise institutional performance;
  2. exposing the institution to the refreshment of ideas from international collaborators about how to approach issues – the opportunity to discuss common issues frankly with colleagues from an overseas university can be highly stimulating, and can generate fresh approaches;
  3. the development of international, intercultural and, in some cases, inter-faith understanding by students and staff alike through their interactions (e.g. through study abroad, or studying or teaching in international collaborative teaching programs, or participation in visiting scholar programs);
  4. the sharing of research expertise, including in some cases research approaches which come at problems from different angles;
  5. more generally, enabling institutions to do together what they could not do, or could not do so well, separately – the standard argument for any cooperative activity;
  6. increasing the international recognition and reputation of qualifications offered by particular institutions and of their national or regional qualifications framework; and
  7. more generally, enhancement of the reputation and prestige of universities through their international connections.

In short, international collaborations can be important for building capacity, broadening perspectives, and raising profile and status. I would especially wish to draw attention to the benefits for universities of sharing ideas and information with international partners in the whole spectrum of activities within universities – from information resources to alumni relations and fundraising, from financial management to student services, from human resource policy and practice to curriculum reform, from research policy to residential colleges – as well as between experts in particular academic disciplines.

There are, however, also many problems with collaborations. These too will vary with the activity and context. For example, study abroad and student exchange can be hindered by incompatibilities in the academic calendars of institutions in different countries, making the timing of student exchanges hard to arrange; on the other hand, the differences between calendars can be an important factor enabling academic staff members from one institution to spend time in another.

Other factors that inhibit study abroad/student exchange may be mentioned to illustrate some of the problems of international collaborations. As well as calendar incompatibilities, such problems include:

  1. arranging credit transfer – the home institution being sufficiently familiar with and confident about both the academic content and the quality of the studies undertaken in the overseas university to grant credit towards the student’s degree (in some cases, the structure of degrees prevents any credit, and in other cases the granting of credit is very readily handled, especially where credit transfer agreements exist);
  2. language – study abroad/exchange in a foreign language environment may only be practical for students of that language, or may further encourage the widespread use of English, including increasingly to teach programs within countries for which English is not an official language;
  3. cost – even when there are institutional and (as in Australia) government sources of financial support for study abroad, the cost can act as a deterrent to students;
  4. prestige – some students may be interested in study abroad/exchange only at a limited range of institutions of high prestige.

The reference to issues in credit transfer highlights the fact that quality assurance issues are important in international collaborations. Institutions should want to ensure that the quality of the activities which are the subject of the collaboration is properly assured. They will be wise to be extremely cautious about any activity which risks their own quality, or the perception of their quality. One of the unresolved quality assurance (or perception of quality) issues in international collaborations is whether it is legitimate for students in international collaborative programs to receive two degrees, one from each of the partner universities, for work neither more advanced nor taking longer than would result in one degree if all of it was undertaken in a single university. As you know, there are moves towards an ASEAN quality assurance network, and there is other international collaboration between national quality assurance agencies.

A consequence of these and other difficulties can be that formal agreements between institutions for study abroad/student exchange can be just that: formal agreements giving rise to very little real activity. This is a more general problem for international collaborations. It is far easier to sign Memorandums of Understanding than it is to give significant effect to them. Stories are told of institutions about to sign MOUs when they discover that they already have an MOU from some years before – to which so little effect has been given that no one in either institution is aware of its existence!

One of the principal reasons why efforts at collaboration often do not achieve their stated purposes is that they are purely ‘top down’ initiatives from the central administration of the university, and do not connect with the ‘real work’ that is undertaken within a university. Initiatives for research collaboration will only work if researchers within both institutions have good reasons to work together. While in some cases collaboration can be required, and there may be much to be said for offering incentives for it, its vitality will depend upon its connecting with the genuine research interests and needs of those undertaking the research. This is not always the case. Similarly, arrangements for student exchange or study abroad will only work if students actually wish to go to the other country and university. Again, there are agreements which do not lead to real activity because, for whatever reason, few students from one institution wish to go to the other.

Collaboration is costly of resources, including staff time and money. Like any activity, it has an opportunity cost. Coordination with colleagues at an overseas institution can be even harder to achieve in practice than coordination within one’s home institution (which often seems hard enough). Resources are almost invariably scarcer than their potential uses, and it is necessary to prioritise. In practice, this can act as a drag on collaboration. The current global financial/economic crisis, with its adverse impact on the resources available to many institutions and individuals, heightens further the need for allocation of resources to be strategic – well judged to maximise positive outcomes for the resources available.

Strategies for successful international collaborations will vary. In research, for example, we may wish to identify universities for potential collaboration by such factors as numbers of highly cited researchers and highly cited papers, as well as other measures of research performance listed above. We know that the likelihood of citation of a scientific paper will be higher or lower depending on which combination of universities the co-authors are from. Having co-authors from leading UK or, most especially, US universities will increase the chances of citation – and having co-authors from both will increase them yet further. This may lead to a strategy of supporting collaborations likely to produce joint publications, and especially joint publications with high prospects of extensive citation. This may mean focussing on attracting visiting scholars from, and sending visiting scholars to, the centres of the most promising collaborations.

One might develop different strategies for collaboration in other fields than research. Wang Yibing has argued that experience shows ‘that successful practices in cooperation in internationalization of higher education would have at least’ these features:

  1. ‘clear focus on concrete substance, for example, curriculum development, faculty or students exchange programme with clear purposes, collaborative research, etc., based on consensus reached by and mutual benefit for all parties involved’;
  2. ‘Stable funding, such as the EU project called “The Asia-Link Programme”’; and
  3. ‘Sincerity, continuity and sustainability’.[16]

Some of the lessons for institutions concerning international collaborations would appear to include these:

  1. develop collaborative arrangements which there is good reason to think will lead to real collaboration in practice because it is clearly in the interests of those ‘on the ground’ in both institutions to collaborate (even if they don’t realise this yet);
  2. select partners carefully and strategically, so as to maximise the chances of real collaboration happening;
  3. promote collaborative opportunities (e.g. the opportunities for working with partner universities in an international network to which you belong) actively among staff and, as appropriate, students, making it as attractive and easy as possible for them to undertake the relevant collaborative activity;
  4. when you enter into a collaborative arrangement that you hope will have significant benefits, work at it hard – as with any activity, planning and implementing strategies to maximise the benefits, including identifying problems and their solutions, monitoring performance (possibly using targets), and reviewing plans and targets in the light of this;
  5. consider what staffing will be needed to give effect to the collaborative arrangement, and provide it;
  6. consider the extent of collaborative arrangements that will work – how many partnerships can actually be put into effect, and from which the institution will genuinely benefit. Some institutions seem to enter into innumerable collaborative arrangements for the sake of them, with no real chance of activity flowing from them, while some others seem insufficiently internationally engaged.

Another way of saying much of this is that the international collaborations chosen should form an integral part of the strategy of the institution, rather than an add-on.

There is, of course, more that can be said on each of these points. For example, from one perspective it makes sense for universities to enter into collaborations only with institutions that perform better than them, so as to be stretched and supported themselves to perform better. But a pairing cannot, obviously, be of two institutions which are both higher than the other in rankings. Institutions need to decide what characteristics – similarities, differences, levels of performance, reputation, ease of communication, and so on – matter in their selection of partners, and make selections that will best achieve their strategic purposes. The best collaborations will probably be between institutions which are sufficiently similar to have real grounds for collaboration (including mutual understanding), but sufficiently different for there to be joint gains from working together. Of course, it is also necessary to accept that institutions with which you may wish to partner might not, in careful analysis of their own strategic interests and in necessary selectivity about their collaborations, agree to collaboration with your university.

Several governments or, as in the case of Europe, regional bodies have taken many steps to encourage international collaborations between universities. This creates opportunities, incentives, and encouragement – for example, through scholarship programs that support student mobility, or programs supporting movement of academic staff. But the same problem can arise for nations as for universities – that unless what the government is wishing to promote connects with the real interests of the staff and students ‘on the ground’, it is unlikely to achieve its objectives. Moreover, the involvement of governments can run the risk of excessive control, and loss of that degree of autonomy which should be an inherent characteristic of a university (and which is, in my view, essential if a university is to become ‘world class’).

It may be that some governments of some other countries, keen to encourage collaboration between their universities and yours, will seek an undue degree of control. This seems to me to be a reason why ASEAN universities should seek diversity in the range of their international collaborations – collaborating within the ASEAN region, of course; collaborating with institutions in other major Asia-Pacific countries, such as (to mention them in alphabetical order) Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand; collaborating with the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe; and, as appropriate for particular purposes, with institutions elsewhere (the appointment of the President of the National University of Singapore to be the founding president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia is an interesting case).


International collaboration is a strategy which many universities in many countries are using both to engage fully in internationalisation and globalisation, and as part of their strategies for raising themselves increasingly to ‘world class’ status, or simply to protect the position they already have. It would seem that significant international collaboration is necessary but not sufficient to achieve these purposes. It is hard today to imagine a ‘world class’ university which did not engage actively in a wide range of international collaborations: indeed, high-quality international collaborations might almost have become one of the defining characteristics of a ‘world class’ university. This is the case not least because one of the most important benefits of international collaboration is that it exposes us repeatedly to international standards, and exposes us to new ideas and possibilities for improving what we do.

Yet international collaborations alone will not enable a university to rise to ‘world class’ status; they need to be part of a wider strategy aimed at this. International collaborations are no panacea or instant recipe for this. Individual institutions need to develop, resource, implement, monitor, and refine their own individual strategies for ‘world class’ university status. Within this, international collaborations that are well chosen, well prepared, well executed, and wisely combined can make a valuable contribution to this strategy, and to raising the quality and performance of an institution in teaching, research, and service.

Selected references:

Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, Princeton University Press, 2006.

Geoffrey Boulton & Colin Lucas, ‘What are universities for?’, League of European Research Universities, September 2008.

Carolyn Daniel, The educational attributes of the some of the world’s ‘top 50’ universities – a discussion paper, The University of Western Australia, May 2008.

Jane Knight, ‘The internationalization of higher education: are we on the right track?’, Academic Matters, October-November 2008.

Jane Knight, ‘Joint and Double Degree Programmes: Vexing Questions and Issues’, The Observatory on borderless higher education, London, September 2008.

Richard Light, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Harvard University Press, 2001.

N.C. Liu & Y. Cheng, ‘Academic Rankings of World Universities – Methodologies and Problems’, 2005.

Donald Markwell, ‘A large and liberal education’: higher education for the 21st century, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2007.

Ka Ho MOK, ‘Internationalising and International-benchmarking of Universities in East Asia: producing World Class University or Reproducing Neo-Imperialism in Education’, November 2007.

The University of Western Australia, Education for tomorrow’s world: courses of action, Report of the Review of Course Structures, September 2008.

Wang Yibing, ‘Realizing the Global University – Some Roadmaps for Consideration by Universities in Developing World’ [undated].

[1] See, e.g., Ka Ho MOK, ‘Internationalising and International-benchmarking of Universities in East Asia: Producing World Class University or Reproducing Neo-Imperialism in Education’, November 2007. See also, e.g., Wang Yibing, ‘Realizing the Global University – Some Roadmaps for Consideration by Universities in Developing World’ [undated].

[2] Geoffrey Boulton & Colin Lucas, ‘What are universities for?’, League of European Research Universities, September 2008, par 48.

[3] The Economist, 10 September 2005.

[4] N.C. Liu & Y. Cheng, ‘Academic Rankings of World Universities – Methodologies and Problems’, 2005, page 1, available at

[5] The educational attributes of the some of the world’s ‘top 50’ universities – a discussion paper, by Dr Carolyn Daniel, May 2008, is available at The other papers are not publicly available.

[6] Education for tomorrow’s world: courses of action (September 2008) is available at

[7] This passage is adapted from Donald Markwell, ‘A large and liberal education’: higher education for the 21st century, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2007, pp. 16-17.

[8] See, e.g., Liu & Cheng, op cit. More generally, see

[9] This section is drawn from Markwell, 2007, pp. 18–23. The themes discussed here are further discussed elsewhere in Markwell, 2007, passim.

[10]  E.g. Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, Princeton University Press, 2006.

[11] ‘A Compact to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Harvard’, January 2007, available at More generally, I especially recommend Richard Light, Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Harvard University Press, 2001, and papers by Alan Gilbert for the University of Manchester review of teaching, learning and the student experience available at

[12] See, e.g., See also, e.g.,

[13] See, e.g., Jane Knight, ‘Joint and Double Degree Programmes: Vexing Questions and Issues’, The Observatory on borderless higher education, London, September 2008.

[14] See, e.g.,

[15] Jane Knight, ‘The internationalization of higher education: are we on the right track?’, Academic Matters, October-November 2008 (see

[16] Wang Yibing, op cit, p. 11.


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