Opportunities for all: the value of international university networks

Jan Thomas at ACU Conference of University Leaders in Ghana
Professor Jan Thomas
Professor Jan Thomas

Professor Jan Thomas is Vice-Chancellor of Massey University, New Zealand, and former Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia.

How can global tertiary networks contribute to institutional achievement? That was one of the questions posed to delegates at this week’s Going Global conference in Malaysia – and one that the ACU is uniquely well-placed to answer. As the oldest international university network in the world, the ACU has been serving its members for more than 100 years. So, why is it that ACU membership continues to thrive and grow? And why do university leaders across the world continue to find it so valuable? As a vice-chancellor myself, as well as a member of the ACU’s governing council, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

Global connections; global citizens

First, global connectivity is now an essential part of any industry, never more so than for higher education. Staff and student mobility – providing an authentic international educational experience and exploiting the opportunities that arise from working across different cultures – is as important as the more traditional international collaborations which drive the research endeavour.

International mobility is at the heart of ACU activity. The ACU has found new and innovative ways to help staff and students at universities across the world increase their international exposure. Through grants, schemes, scholarships, networks, and conferences, the ACU provides a myriad of credible and vibrant opportunities for all.

We are all familiar with the degree to which strong partnerships with like-minded institutions are more often than not initiated through personal relationships (colleagues researching a common area, for example) and fed by mutual interest and benefit in education, research, or both. International networks such as the ACU provide exposure and opportunities for engagement that cannot be foreseen without participation.

Diversity and commonality

There is also the untapped potential of the Commonwealth itself and the distinctive character of its membership. The Commonwealth’s 53 member nations are among the richest, poorest, largest, and smallest – creating opportunities unlikely to be found through other networks.

Through the diversity run common threads that support collaboration and partnerships. The European origins of modern universities and all the values inherent in our missions are well displayed throughout the Commonwealth. These nations are united in their shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – providing the ideal basis for building meaningful and lasting relationships. A common heritage, language, and elements of culture also ensure familiarity and an ease of working together. Moreover, the emerging economies within the Commonwealth provide new and exciting opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships with universities from more established systems.

Democracy, collegiality, and human development

For me, though, the rationale for membership transcends practical benefits for the individual institution. While universities need to operate as large multinational businesses in the 21st century, they remain unique civic institutions that are fundamental for democracy to flourish. Their role in educating citizens for future workforce needs is obvious. Less obvious is the role they play in general capability development across the population – ensuring that citizens are educated, informed, and able to exercise their rights.

Among the fundamentals of a modern university are the immutable characteristics of academic freedom and collegiality. Academics understand the benefit of cooperation and collaboration. In a global world, all universities must maintain their vision beyond the horizon of international business relationships and preserve open collegial discussion. Universities have a responsibility to foster the principles of the academy and to actively protect it in situations where it might be under threat.

Active membership and participation in the ACU by all the nations that form this unique collective will enhance all participating universities and their respective countries. It should not simply be considered as an ‘international development’ exercise but rather as a foundation for our fundamental role in supporting human development.

Shifting sands in the geopolitical landscape suggest that these roles are required now more than ever.