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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

The Company We Keep: A Cautionary Tale
August 18, 2010 - 3:38pm

In international higher education, we are judged by the company we keep. Thus, it is of great importance that universities choose their partners carefully, make sure that their “brand” and reputation is protected, and that the partnership provides benefits to all sides.

A cautionary tale has emerged from Vietnam. It seems that the Vietnam National University in Hanoi (VNU-H) in Hanoi, one of the country’s top institutions and one that is trying to become a “world class” university, has had a formal linkage with Irvine University in the United States. This blogger will refrain from any detailed comments about Irvine, as he does not wish to get sued, except to note that Irvine University is not accredited by any agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, meaning that its students do not qualify for federal financial aid and that some state governments would not accept its graduates' degrees as meeting the states' educational requirements for employees. One would look in vain to find Irvine University on any of the commonly used rankings—not even at the very bottom.

It seems that VNU-H has dropped its links with Irvine recently and most, but not quite all, mentions of Irvine have been removed from the VNU website. VNU-H has many international linkages -- 88 according to its website, including 19 with American universities, 27 with Japanese institutions, including several major corporations such as Fujitsu, 2 with British schools, and so on. This is an unrealistically large number of partners. In this VNU is not unusual. Many universities worldwide seem to collect meaningless memoranda of understanding (MoU) or other partnership agreements that are no more meaningful than the pieces of paper on which they are written. But they look good on a website and seem to be a sign of internationalization and an indication of the range of global engagement. But in fact, many of these “linkages” do not mean much to either side.

One does not wish to unfairly criticize Vietnam National University, since many universities in developing countries make odd choices of collaborators due to lack of information, blandishments offered, or personal connections of various kinds. And many developing countries, particularly those at the top of the national hierarchy or with strong government connections, such as VNU, are subject to many requests for partnerships from overseas universities and are reluctant to say no. And the cost of saying yes is not high.

But there are lessons here. The first is that it is easy to jump into inappropriate relationships. These ties can harm the reputation of the university and, more important, harm students and professors by linking them with foreign partners who have little standing or reputation at home or internationally. Having too many foreign ties can create problems of quality assurance and management as well as reputation. And a university with too many partners looks irresponsible or at least thoughtless.

Fortunately, these problems are easily solved. Having one or more senior staff member who knows the international higher education scene is probably a key element. Taking time to do research and explore the implications of partnerships is also important. And having a clearly articulated international higher education strategy, a kind of foreign policy, which outlines both broad strategies and specific plans, provides a “road map” for international links. For developing countries, perhaps the most important element is a commitment to serve the best interest of the university and the country rather than say yes to every invitation from the outside.


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