Being Global While Sounding Local

The following is a guest post by David Eastwood, vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham, in Britain.

Traditionally a university has been defined by, indeed defined itself as, a place. People “go to” universities, even in a world where the virtual may seem to have made place less important. Students often will pay, and pay significantly, to study at universities, putting a premium on the real, the immediate, and the academic experience in a particular environment. The Harvard experience is Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. However generous the institution is with its online content, that is only a tantalizing fragment of the Harvard experience. Not valueless, of course, but different.

To study at a particular university means to study in a unique setting and in a distinctive program. The importance of that experience for many leads them to want to return to their alma mater, literally to revisit their memories and to reconnect in their university setting. Nowhere is this more powerful than at the most prestigious universities.

So what does this mean in a world where higher education is increasingly globalized, and where many of us think long and hard about our global strategy?

Interestingly, it has not led to a complete flight to the virtual. In the international higher-education market, many foreign students prefer to travel to places of learning. Students seek the authenticity of the specific university experience—they see it as much more than an encounter with knowledge. Students want to engage with other people: instructors, researchers, and their peers. Crucially, they want to buy into a university experience that is more than just a learning experience, relishing the university as a social and a cultural community. Students rightly presume that this, as well as a series of academic encounters and challenges, is what make universities places of transformation.

So the advent of globalized higher education has not undermined the importance of place and the attraction of studying at, rather than through, a particular university. Leading universities, in particular, compete in the international market not with the generic but with the distinctive. The general brand of American, British, or Australian higher education matters, but our own institution’s distinctiveness matters more.

This seems to me to be equally true of branch campuses overseas. I am struck by the branding of the University of Nottingham’s campuses in China and Malaysia as part of the Nottingham group, defined by that which is unequivocally “Nottingham.” Global strategies have not made the local, or the institutionally particular, any less important.

Here is a central paradox of higher education’s globalization. While in other sectors globalization has led to homogenization, in higher education we are seeing something different.

So to prosper in a new world, higher-education institutions are developing a striking new hybrid that infuses the global with the local. The challenge is to understand the nature of the global challenge, to respond to global opportunities and the possibilities provided by the emergence of a mass market in international higher education, and indeed developments in distance learning, while also retaining or even enhancing our identities as institutions: a process I describe as “being global and sounding local.”

To understand this is to understand the art of prospering in a globalized education environment. Not all institutions can or will wish to do this, and international higher education, like national systems, will become increasingly characterized by mission differentiation. Wise institutions will choose which markets they can compete in, and will attend closely to their comparative advantage. Others, especially the leading research universities, will and must think globally, recruit globally, compete globally, but be recognizable and distinctive in that global environment.

There isn’t some simple new paradigm—the global university—that if any university embraced it would assure success. Just as there isn’t some simple formula that internationalizes the curriculum, the student experience, and the research base of universities. Precisely because of its distinctiveness and radical execution, the Nottingham model is not a template for others, but rather an example of what might be achieved.

At Birmingham, we are pursuing a rather different strategy in Guangzhou, in south China, based on a university partnership with the municipal government, research partnerships, bilateral relationships with leading universities, and emerging industrial ties.

All of the universities that are serious about internationalization must do so in ways that don’t lead to homogenization of institutions and a loss of institutional identity, but rather, as institutions internationalize, they must continue to develop precisely those characteristics and qualities which define them locally and represent them globally.

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