International Crossroads

Some of the prevailing models on academic collaboration across borders may be about to change, writes Edward Peck.

December 12, 2011

It is unusual to find a prospectus for a North American, British or Antipodean university that fails to stress commitment to internationalization. For many institutions this is shorthand for attracting overseas students onto a domestic campus or extending opportunities for online learning. However, a significant number have sought to establish their teaching expertise and experience in foreign climes. Indeed, there are now sufficient examples of such educational initiatives that a broad typology has been established: flying faculty, new campuses, and various forms of partnership arrangements. Like most typologies, when applied it turns out that many developments fit into more than one category; nonetheless, it does provide a rough and ready framework for exploring progress to date.

The flying faculty approach -- where academics travel abroad on a short-term basis to teach programs typically identical to those delivered on the home campus -- has proved surprisingly resilient. Whilst inevitably limited in scale by the extent to which staff are willing and able -- or obliged -- to commit to this activity, it has a number of advantages. It is relatively quick and easy to set up. It is largely immune to the accusation that the program is a different product to that available on the home campus. It can offer opportunities for domestic students to do some of the work for their degree abroad. Furthermore, it can respond swiftly to any downturn in demand in a particular location and potentially relocate elsewhere. Of course, this very lack of local roots also means that the local partner -- usually responsible for recruitment, administration and facilities -- can replace one supplier with another without too much bother if the relationship starts to sour.     

Without underestimating the practical challenges involved in its creation, developing a stand-alone campus in another country can seem reassuringly familiar. In terms of infrastructure, organization and human factors, most such developments to date have sought broadly to re-create the domestic model overseas. While in Britain the enthusiasm amongst universities seems to be continuing, the recently announced University of Lancaster campus in China being just the latest example, there is evidence that the trend is slowing in the U.S.

There may be good reasons for this. A campus of any size cannot be managed by the existing academic body flying out to teach, and thus requires the recruitment of new and typically locally based faculty members to deliver the programs. As the fees are often lower than those back home, and the terms and conditions of employment are frequently inferior, the suspicion can arise that studying at the overseas campus does not give students the same academic experience as that available by traveling to the U.S. or Britain, and the quality of applicants can be disappointing. At its worst, the brand of the university may be tarnished. Certainly, all of these risks may be compensated by the financial benefits, although there are suggestions that some overseas campuses have never generated cash surpluses for the host institution. Vulnerable to the growth of local competition and changes in local legislation, there are considerable financial and reputational costs to closing such campuses.

To alleviate these risks, many Western universities are now seeking new forms of partnership, either with indigenous higher education institutions and/or with those in regional and national governments responsible for education policy. While more time-consuming to set up, and perhaps also acknowledging from the outset that the benefits may be more reputational than financial, the intention behind many of these developments is for the incoming university to become embedded into the provision of teaching and, increasingly, the pursuit of research. This is the approach being taken by the University of Birmingham in South China.

Based around a primary partnership with Guangzhou Municipal Government, this collaboration is grounded in a series of jointly funded research projects that share three characteristics: they promote the economic and social well-being of the city; they reflect the intellectual strengths of the University of Birmingham; and they build academic capacity and capability in local universities. The recruitment of postgraduate students linked to the specific projects will lead to the creation of Graduate School in the city. At the same time, the establishment of an international student hub will see Birmingham support the development of curriculums and pedagogy in programs that will be primarily taught by a local university.

It is worth reflecting at this juncture on one of the paradoxes of this field: many of the early forays aimed at the growth of significant teaching overseas have been initiated by universities that would maintain that they are research-focused. However, as international rankings driven by peer recognition and citation levels gain prominence, and domestic research budgets become constrained, the benefits of emphasizing the research aspects of internationalization are gathering pace.

This is not without its difficulties. First and foremost, there are the internal issues for the universities involved as they transform themselves from more or less coherent collections of cottage industries -- where international research links typically rely on bilateral connections of individuals or small teams of academics -- to multimillion-dollar businesses committed to creating robust cross-continent platforms for original research and the subsequent commercialization of its outputs.  

At the same time, the creation of multi-agency partnerships – of local universities, government bodies, private companies – in unfamiliar jurisdictions without any established precedents on which to draw requires a significant investment of institutional time, energy and money. In some international settings there are legitimate concerns around the protection of intellectual property.  
This is not an undertaking that many universities can afford to pursue simultaneously in more than one or two locations. Furthermore, such developments may start to have an impact on the composition of the universities back home as they recruit additional faculty members to support research initiatives in priority areas such as high-value engineering and biosciences (just as the international demand for teaching in business subjects has driven the expansion of business schools).

Nonetheless, the potential to become central to the social, economic and educational development of a city or region in a country with a fast-growing economy offers universities the prospect of sharing, over the long term, in the intellectual, financial and reputational benefits that will accrue. For instance, time spent now in supporting the selection and supervision of the next generation of academics in these locations will help cement the links which will drive research collaboration in future decades.  

In due course, surely it is not fanciful to envisage that those universities that succeed in this approach, at least those that are located in polities that remain stable and supportive, will leave behind talk of internationalization, and with it conceptions of home and overseas, as they consolidate a global brand where such considerations are increasingly redundant; where, after all, is Deloitte based? Furthermore, the current relatively loosely networked international confederations of universities -- such as World Universities Network or Universitas 21 -- may well be replaced by much closer alliances, or even mergers, between universities seeking to create a truly international reach, much in the manner of major airlines. These new configurations will include increasing numbers of leading institutions from all across the globe.  But we are now moving into the realm of speculation; all we can say with certainty is that the existing typology will need to undergo regular expansion to reflect the range of approaches that will emerge over the next 10 years.  



Edward Peck is pro-vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham, in Britain.


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