Leadership & Governance

How Global Partnerships Could Remake the Research University

Edward Byrne, president, King's College London

November 01, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Edward Byrne, president of King’s College London, recently spoke with The Chronicle about how deeper collaboration across borders could shake up the international hierarchy of great institutions.


KARIN FISCHER: Hi. I'm Karin Fischer, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm joined here today by Edward Byrne. He's the president and principal of King's College in London. Thanks for coming by The Chronicle.

EDWARD BYRNE: Very nice to be here.

KARIN FISCHER: So I wanted to start out by asking you about, sort of, the British equivalent of some of the things that have been roiling the U.S. lately, which is Brexit. And I'm curious to talk a little bit about how is it affecting the higher-education sector within the U.K.?

EDWARD BYRNE: Well, it's an interesting question. I have to be a little honest and say when Brexit was voted in by the referendum, it came as a little bit of a shock to the university sector because our links with continental Europe are profound. At King's, a third of our academic staff are from the European continent, quite a proportion of our undergraduate and postgraduate students, and quite a lot of our research funding.

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But more importantly, you know, universities are all about free exchange of ideas and people, and things that potentially raise barriers obviously cause concern. Now, look, having said that, you know, our university and the university sector in the U.K. will continue to thrive. I think it's very likely that the government will negotiate a series of ongoing arrangements that allow academic links with continental Europe to continue to flourish. But it opens all sorts of opportunities even beyond what we've already had with the rest of the world — collaboration with the United States, with the Americas, with Asia, with Australia. There are profound opportunities there that we will continue to work on and develop.

KARIN FISCHER: Let me jump on that, then, and ask — I mean, I hope this doesn't sound sort of opportunistic, but I am curious about how you're thinking about the broader world, then, and what kinds of linkages you might establish, and particularly with American institutions. What kind of possibility —

EDWARD BYRNE: We have many of the greatest universities — most of the greatest universities in the world are in North America, especially in the United States. So we have a range of collaborations in Latin America. We have very strong links with UNAM in Mexico and with the University of São Paolo, and we have some links in Canada. But at King's, over the long history of the institution, our strongest academic collaborations have always been with U.S. institutions.

In recent times they've been discipline-specific with Georgetown and policy, with University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a range of issues, with UCSF and medicine, with Hopkins and medicine. But we're now developing a deeper relationship, which is also bringing in an Australian partner, University of New South Wales, with Arizona State, ASU, which I've always regarded as, at least in the last decade since Michael Crow took over, one of the most dynamic universities in the world. And we're developing a broad series of research and educational collaborations which will be quite profound.

KARIN FISCHER: Well, talk to me a little bit about that because typically a lot of collaborations have really happened on the individual faculty level. Institutionally, what are your goals? What do you hope to gain by working with these institutions?

EDWARD BYRNE: Well, at the end of the day, collaborations are always based on individual faculty because it has to make sense to the faculty before anything happens. But if I could describe it this way, faculty in this age of interdisciplinarity will often collaborate very strongly with people in adjacent departments or even adjacent schools in their own institution. They may even collaborate with other schools in the same city or the same geographic region.

What we're aiming to do through this alliance, that we're calling the Plus Alliance, is to develop equally strong collaborative opportunities with faculty in closely allied institutions, where all institutional barriers to collaboration have been removed. So it's as though, in an ideal world, one might be in an economics department and have the, sort of, extended wings of one's department in different institutions in other parts of the world. And this would have been absolutely impossible just a few years ago, but modern technology makes it very feasible.

KARIN FISCHER: So even though you're on three continents, you think you can really operate as one institution in some ways?

EDWARD BYRNE: Time zones are still a struggle, but that aside. That aside, no —

KARIN FISCHER: If you don't want to sleep, it's great, though.

EDWARD BYRNE: You know, people do travel more easily, but 99 percent of the intellectual collaboration is done electronically through videoconferencing, through their shared websites, all of the plethora of approaches now available, which is so much better than it was even four or five years ago.

KARIN FISCHER: And what do you hope? I mean, if we were to have this conversation five or 10 years from now, and this partnership was then more mature, what do you think you might be able to realize by working with these two institutions that you mightn't on your own?

EDWARD BYRNE: Look, I'd answer that in two dimensions. The first is the main reason for doing this is that we can take stuff on more effectively together than we could do individually. So that might be research capacity in key areas. It might be the ability to develop the widest and strongest interdisciplinary programs in areas of sustainable development or in areas of human health. And it is around those areas.

It's in areas of multinational collaboration with industry. The largest companies are typically organized now in a global sense, so having the ability to, in a one-stop shop, deliver partnerships in three continents is of interest to industry. But I think more than anything, it's about providing young people around the globe with the highest, Ivy League-level education in a way that they wouldn't be able to access under normal circumstances.

KARIN FISCHER: And could you just say a little bit more about how that education might be promoted?

EDWARD BYRNE: Well, I think it will be in the main through e-education with some hybrid opportunities, perhaps using modified templates of the type that Arizona State has developed so effectively in the United States in terms of its broad distance education and e-education programs. But we'll be looking in a very culturally sensitive way about how we might best develop educational paradigms of this type that could be accessed by students across the globe, that ideally would give them a triple accreditation through three great universities.

KARIN FISCHER: Well, interesting. It's a very unusual approach to global partnerships, and I'll be interested to see how it progresses.

EDWARD BYRNE: Yeah. I was involved in a similar, but perhaps narrower, approach in my last job when I was the president of Monash University, in Australia, when we developed the partnership with Warwick University. It's one of two models of the globally networked university, the depth alliance, the other model being simply that you do it yourself. Monash tried that, NYU has tried that with its campuses around the world.

If you think of the branch-campus model, you know, great universities may establish branch campuses overseas, but all the power comes from the mothership. This is a network model where you have a number of great intellectual hubs come together in a network sense. So it's much more powerful potentially than the branch-campus model, which has been tried in the past.

Now, my belief, and this is really the second part of the answer to the why-do question, is that institutions who pull this off successfully will be developing a new paradigm of university strength that will really shake up the international hierarchy of great research universities, which has remained largely unchanged for 50 years.

KARIN FISCHER: Wow, well, that could be quite fascinating. Well, I hope then we can continue this conversation. But thank you so much for coming by.

EDWARD BYRNE: Thank you very much.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.