Universities UK Annual Conference 2012: President’s Address

Minister, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.
Well it’s been quite a summer. Talent, hard work, creativity, competition, great values,
international reach and embrace, successful organisation, self-deprecation, humour, excitement
and exhilaration and also disappointment and heartache. And that’s just higher education
never mind the Olympics and Paralmypics. Seriously, the United Kingdom was a great
place to be in August and September and it was refreshing to see such a clear exposition
of the combination of personality, values, history and celebration of diversity that
makes this country so creative and challenging. Our students and graduates made up a very
significant proportion of Team GB. In fact, Further and Higher Education GB would be the
fifth highest nation in the medals chart with 20 Golds, 12 Silver and 10 Bronze medals.
It is also interesting to see the large number and diversity of institutions from which those
medallists hailed. But it isn’t just sport. I don’t need to tell anyone in this room
how those self same characteristics in our staff as well as our students ensure the UK
has such an outstanding higher education system in all its manifestations. David, we would also like to say how pleased
we are that our Ministerial team of Vince Cable and you are continuing after the reshuffle.
These are challenging times and it is great to have Ministers who understand universities
and their importance in 21st century society. In you David, as our direct Minister, we know
we have someone who obviously cares about universities and science, who knows deeply
about them and who can prosecute their case so eloquently. Of course there will be debate
about how income to universities was sustained but it certainly was sustained – it would
be a very different world if we were facing cuts in income that are the average in other
parts of the public sector. There are, of course, further cuts mooted and we will have
to work hard with you to ensure they do not compromise the quality of our teaching and
also the science budget which is so crucial to this country’s future success. However, after the highs, there are the inevitable
lows – a post-ictal state as I call it is a medic, although some of you may have a different
terminology. There are two acute issues for the sector at the moment. Firstly, the changes in student number controls
created individual challenges for each university – probably slightly different for each one.
As usual, universities responded effectively and successfully to the new challenges. What
happened demonstrated very effectively that university admissions is not a stable, well
ordered environment characterised by linear, deterministic outcomes. It is, in fact, unstable,
non-linear and non-deterministic and thus institutions travelling across it can end
in very different places even though they start in much the same place. It really was
a story of unpredicted and unintended consequences. It can only be surmised that further changes
in the variables will have similar outcomes and the situation will probably not stabilise
until there is complete de-regulation of student numbers. That, however, is going to require
some imaginative thinking about how student support is financed. Secondly, the continued uncertainties over
migration issues and visas continue to challenge the sector. This summer highlighted our ambivalence
over migration as a nation – even as a capital city. When Jeremy Clarkson was making the
case on television for Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the greatest Briton some years ago, I read
an article by a Ugandan Asian who had been forced to flee Idi Amin. In it she made three points. Firstly, when
she was taught about Brunel at school in Uganda she thought he was a company not a single
person because he had been so productive. Secondly that he built things that reflected
the zeitgeist of the age – big, confident, robust and long-lasting. We tend to build
much more emphemeral, glass based structures today and what does that say about our zeitgeist?
Finally, she reminded us all that Brunel was the son of a migrant – his father fled persecution
of the Huguenots in Europe – and that Brunel reminded us how much this country has gained
from migration over the centuries. Simply looking at the diversity of our medal
winners underlined her point. I don’t know about you but I felt immensely proud of those
winners firstly simply as people. But secondly I felt proud of our country’s history as
a place where individuals can come, we welcome them and they can flourish. That is a great
asset and we mustn’t squander it. In particular it is a massive asset for universities and
the topic of this conference is A World Without Boundaries – nobody in this room needs to
be told how crucial the free international flow of human capital is to success in the
modern, globalised world of higher education (of which more later). All that having been said, Minister, we acknowledge
that migration is an important issue for the people of this country at the moment and that
universities must be sensitive to those emotions. That means we must be fully committed to stamping
out abuse, to working closely with the Government on this and we recognise our duty to keep
full and up to date records on our students. However, we appear to have arrived at a situation
with overseas students in which our country invites ridicule or at the very least astonishment.
UUK has calculated that overseas students are a £7.6 billion annual export industry
with huge potential to expand. They add intellectual, social and cultural firepower to one of the
most successful sectors of the UK, universities. Finally they give our country additional global
soft power for decades to come. Surveys show that students are not a prime cause for people’s
anxieties over migration and finally, in our part of the sector, they have at least a 98%
compliance rate and that is from the Home Office’s own study. We need a clear, single message to those potential
students and their countries. I have stood with Ministers in various parts of the world
whilst they have been discussing with those countries’ education ministers how to increase
numbers of students coming from those countries to the UK. Quite right, by the way. Meanwhile,
simultaneously, other parts of Government are sending out messages that are damaging
to our reputation of being welcoming to overseas students. I dislike talking about rights and much prefer
to frame arguments around duties. We owe these overseas students, who are paying guests in
our country, some significant duties. We, the country and universities, owe it to potential
applicants to study in the UK to present a fair picture of what their opportunities are,
how they will be given to them and how they will aid their intellectual and career development;
and to ensure that we have a fair and efficient mechanism for deciding their suitability for
a visa. We, the country and the universities, have a duty to ensure they are properly looked
after both academically and socially. We, the universities, also owe a duty to the country
that we will monitor these students in a purposeful way in order to be able to reassure our citizens
that overseas students are here to study and are not bogus. We certainly did not fulfil those duties on
August the 29th. Around 3000 students, of whom the overwhelming majority were bona fide
students, found themselves in a foreign country far from home without a course. I have had
no rational explanation of how that fulfilled our duties to them as human beings never mind
as students. Everyone involved in this needs to remind themselves that families have paid
for these courses and that, for these students, this is one of their major lifetime chances.
Let’s all just ponder on how we would have reacted if that had happened to our sons and
daughters in a foreign country. Why were their needs not given absolute primacy in all these
considerations? I would argue that we all have been found
wanting in our duties to these students. That even includes some of our citizens, who seem
to feel they can articulate some of the most bigoted and factually incorrect comments under
the cloak of anonymity in the blogosphere without any sense of responsibility over how
they colour the debate. I urge that we all reconfigure the nature
of our discourse about overseas students and immigration and put the human beings and our
duties to them at the centre of all our discussions. While there are many informal bilateral meetings
and communications, the public discourse appears mainly to be spoken through megaphones. Surely
the time has come for all those involved in this to sit round a single table and try and
come to some end-point about overseas students. Frankly a decision is needed – and surely
it’s not beyond the wit of man or woman to broker such discussions. Meanwhile UUK
and universities will continue to articulate how important international students and staff
are and we will continue to lobby for overseas students to be excluded from net migration
– at least for policy purposes. And so to the meat of this conference – A
World Without Boundaries. The title was deliberately chosen to address how UK universities operate
in a globalized environment. The first problem one encounters is that there is no single
agreed definition of globalisation nor any agreement as to whether it is a phenomenon
of modernity or a historical force that has been impacting on society in one way or another
for centuries. I don’t intend to lead a seminar on semantics and frankly I think the
title of our meeting gets it – A World Without Borders be they either technological or geographic
– or linguistic or social or cultural. Against that definition, higher education
with its very free movement of information and its hugely mobile staff and student population
is at the very centre of the phenomenon. In fact, it is an exemplary testing ground. And
true to form, when presented with the opportunity to explore and innovate, UK higher education
seizes it with both hands. Over the last 15 years or so our universities
have opened campuses abroad, have created international campuses in their homes, have
hugely increased the percentage of international students and staff, have joined international
networks, have established deep bilateral partnerships with individual universities,
and have embraced distance education. And they are currently in discussion, particularly
through you Minister, with the governments of huge geographical regions (India, South
America, the USA) about the benefits or otherwise of more systemic, and probably multi-lateral,
collaborations in higher education. I think the intriguing question is which of these
will prove sustainable and which will wither on the vine. Will it be all or none? I will
speculate on the shape of UK-led international HE later in this speech but first I want to
address what characteristics define a “globalised” university or a “world” university if
you wish. The first definition everyone uses is that
the university has multiple and diverse international collaborations between academic staff. However,
there are thousands of universities worldwide that have substantial and diverse international
collaborations – every one of those cannot be a “global” university. So what are
the extra factors that will define a “global” university? I would suggest the following: 1. Global Brand Penetration My brother has lived in Japan for over 30
years and he reminds me that, as far as the overwhelming majority of the Japanese population
are concerned, there are only two universities in the United Kingdom. When I travel in North
America I am constantly reminded that most of the people I meet don’t even know where
Bristol is, never mind whether it has a university. Such reality begs the question as to whether
any other institution in the UK can honestly claim to be global. The answer to that depends
on which constituency you are addressing. I would argue that if you wish to be considered
a global university it is almost a sine qua non that your peers and national policy makers
should see you as that even if the person in the street doesn’t – i.e. the global
Chemistry community recognises the excellence of your Chemistry Department. 2. Comprehensive excellence in research, teaching,
academic staff, administration, facilities, leadership and governance This is a minimum set of characteristics.
In the UK there are number of institutions where quality of research, teaching and academic
staff is certainly high enough to qualify them as global players. We have many universities
with excellent facilities, especially following recent investments. It is essential that a
global university is independent, has good governance and is well led. The institution’s
head and administration must be committed to the “globalisation” and be prepared
to persuade staff that it is a good way forward. 3. Innovative Global Research The pursuit of innovative global research
is a very significant characteristic. What is clear is that global research is not just
more “connectivity” i.e. putting people together in different ways, maximising effective
use of logistics, video seminar series and summer institutes. All these are good in themselves
and may lead to new ways of thinking and collaborating but they are not “global” characteristics.
The global part of this comes in the marshalling of these universities’ huge intellectual
and logistical resources to address global problems and questions in new ways. The size of the endeavour, the size and centrality
of the questions, and the multiplicity of partners are the crucial factors here. This
means asking academic staff to think in new ways; to ask them to look out of the rut and
see different horizons. This is not intellectually easy; most of us are much more comfortable
with reductionist science. It is fiercely difficult to identify, never mind pose, the
central integrating question. The “connectivity” benefits that I have described will be an
essential mechanism for identifying and posing these questions but it is essential that that
“connectivity” is identified for that purpose and not just seen as a good in its
own right. 4. An International Curriculum A global university will have an undergraduate
and postgraduate curriculum that will explicitly take into account that its students will be
going out into a globalised world. This doesn’t mean a wholesale subversion of an academic
curriculum but it does mean it should be framed against that paradigm. I don’t believe that
global distribution of its educational material and programs is a necessary variable although
many institutions will do this. 5. Strong and diverse international student
and staff demand – many international visitors A colleague recently said that he had worked
at three universities and what differentiated one from the others – and it was an acknowledged
global player – was the frequency and diversity of other academics from outside the UK visiting
the department and the university. In other words, you have what other people in the rest
of the world want to see. The academic staff must include natives of
other countries who have recognised the opportunities your university offers – this is not just
returning Brits who want to be nearer their family. Finally, it is essential there is
a diverse, international student body. 6. Impacting on global issues, policy formulation
and professional practice Academic staff of a global university will
be advising global institutions on policy formulation around global issues, for example
advising the United Nations about solutions to global poverty or the WHO about AIDS and
its management in the Third World. 7. Close interactions with global business Chief executives and senior managers in global
businesses will naturally interact and collaborate with organisations that they consider to be
punching at the same weight as they are. There are a number of UK institutions that
have all or nearly all of these characteristics in part but none which has all of them in
full. Comparison with US universities is very sobering especially with regard to facilities
– we still have a way to go before we can confidently say we have a number of global
universities. Will we be able to say that more confidently in 20 years’ time? And that, I consider, is the interesting question.
What will our universities’ borderless activity look like in 20 years’ time? At one end
of the spectrum you can foresee an amplified picture of what is currently happening. The
academics will continue with their international links which I’m sure will be the case. Our
universities will have extended all those activities I described earlier. In fact some
of them will look like international corporations with branches all over the world providing
undergraduate and postgraduate education. Some will be just delivering their own provision
but in a different location, while others will have differentiated their content and
pedagogy to take account of the society and culture of that geography and those degrees
will be very different from the ones taught back home. Others may have extensive online
and distance provision. The students and staff of all universities will be much more internationalised. I, however, have some difficulty seeing every
university having such comprehensive global activities. As I say, I’m sure academic
to academic links will grow and I’m also pretty sure that there will be increasing
diversity of staff and students on the main campus. I accept that there will be huge unmet
demand for higher education globally over the next 20 years but I’m pretty sure that
some realities of competition and simple financial or logistical failure will mean that some
universities will have decided to retreat from global provision and have returned to
educational provision solely from their home base. Maybe a Darwinian struggle will have
occurred with some universities winning in the global provision stakes and others deciding
it’s not worth the effort. And maybe that’s not such a bad outcome. No global success
is worth domestic failure. I well remember having dinner with some very senior alumni
in Hong Kong discussing whether Bristol should consider off shore provision in China in one
shape or other and one of them saying “Whatever you do, get it right back home Eric, get it
right back home.” Inside that comment are some important truths.
Universities might have to be businesslike but they certainly aren’t just businesses.
This is not just about setting up a global chain of retail outlets where the product
is education. Many universities are defined to some degree or other by the place in which
they are situated. Oxford and Cambridge would be classic examples of that in the UK. But
they are not the only ones. For most of us, our home town is part of our brand – the
city of Bristol is a huge part of people’s perception of the university. I have no doubt
that it is a big part of what attracts people to study and work there. How far can that
be diluted without the very definition of Bristol University being changed completely? Furthermore academic staff, in particular,
want to be where the action is. I am on the Global Advisory Board for the University of
Chicago Booth School of Business which has a very successful campus in London. However,
it is not staffed residentially – rather the US staff come over regularly for short
periods of time. That is so because they want to be located in Hyde Park in Chicago sitting
in the same building and in the same coffee shop as the big academic players, their Nobel
Prize winners. If you have difficulty asking staff to relocate to London, with all its
attractions, what will it be like for less attractive parts of the world? The answer
lies in using local staff but then there is real danger of the kind of dilution of the
brand that I discussed earlier. I am not saying that there won’t be universities
that successfully deliver offshore education whilst maintaining their reputation and keeping
the home offer intact. I am saying it won’t be every university and that some, either
as a result of prestige or of practicality, will decide to limit themselves to their home
base and location. Both will be successful. Research will offer borderless opportunities.
However, if we are to go beyond academic to academic interactions and have the kind of
purposeful, multi-disciplinary, multi-partner projects addressing major issues facing society
that I discussed earlier then our research leaders and funders are going to have to think
and plan in a different way. It is almost 12 years since I attended my first Worldwide
University Network meeting in Washington DC where one of our guests was the then Director
of the NSF, Rita Caldwell. She was very enthusiastic that we were setting up an international research
based university network – she was quite clear that this was the future. I then spent the next five years flogging
around governmental research funding agencies in Washington and London and always getting
the same response: “Yes this is a great idea but it doesn’t work within our organisational
structure, or we would have to have it peer reviewed by a large number of panels, or it
would have to be peer reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic”. I even remember pitching
a 22 partner, $20 million project to investigate the geology, geochemistry and biology of the
deep seas affected by the black smokers of the East Chile trench to a very senior member
of NSF. I was simply told that funding this would not be possible because it wouldn’t
be fair to others not in the consortium – i.e. that we were running an anti-competitive trust.
12 years later we are closer to being able to get these large projects together and I
exemplify that with the very successful UKIERI project. However, UKIERI is not funding the
scale of project that I am considering and I believe the funding for them will come from
organisations similar to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who can operate way beyond
international and administrative and organisational boundaries. Still a long way to go. One final thought addresses the issue of who
will partner with us in the future and how. At the moment our paradigm of globalisation
is to export our product either by attracting individuals here or by the various means I
described earlier – co-provision, overseas campuses, franchising. Our partners have mainly
been other universities or local or national governments. Somehow I doubt that will be
the shape of things to come. It is already proving difficult to get foreign provider
status in some geographies due to the slow progress of bills through parliament. In many
countries the way to develop may well be on the back of private finance, which will create
new challenges. Some of you will be aware of the initiative in Macedonia where a university
campus is being built with private finance from outside Macedonia. The campus is planned
to provide the infrastructure for any university to provide its courses in that location to
fee-paying Macedonian students, overseas students and even home students who would locate to
Macedonia. Rest assured I’m not here to sell that initiative but its mixture of private
and public support in a new country to provide a very flexible educational offering may exemplify
what the future may bring. Literally as I wrote this speech an email
arrived in my inbox from a private company offering to put University of Bristol courses
on-line. I went to the website where there were courses from professors at very well
established universities such as NYU, Johns Hopkins and McGill, in such areas as Engineering
and Entrepreneurial Finance. These courses are free, so don’t ask me how the business
plan works. I’m simply telling you about this because I believe that one of the least
predictable futures is how on-line and e-learning will develop and who will finance it. One
thing our WUN experience with distributed on-line teaching taught me is that it is not
a sport for the managerially faint-hearted nor the financially shallow. As all of you know there is no more inaccurate
science than futurology. 20 years hence will inevitably be a very different world than
the ones I have been describing. What borderless will mean may have totally changed. We are
already in a world where you can study your subject with a handset on a beach. Will technology
have delivered new forms of communication that will create a paradigm shift? I started
at the University of Southampton 21 years ago. Since then a lot has changed but also
a lot of our fundamental work remains the same and is delivered in the same way. Will
there be an evolutionary leap in the next 20 years? I don’t know. I have no doubt,
however, that then, as it is now, our universities will still be at the very centre of a successful
globalised, borderless, world. Thank you

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