The following is by Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, president of the International Association of Universities, and Eva Egron-Polak, secretary-general of the association.
Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor of the University of Warwick, recently wrote that universities worldwide need to become better organized to represent higher education’s interests, and better self-regulated to avoid being managed by bodies outside the sector. Coming together to position universities as “some of the most important actors striding onto the world stage” is more straightforward and less fraught with complications than the second idea—a “more integrated global governance of universities.” Yet both present tremendous challenges, and the first must be accomplished before the second can be gained.
Our organization, the International Association of Universities, is a global membership organization of some 650 higher-education institutions and organizations. We strive to take on the challenges Mr. Thrift sets out by being a coordinating body and global representative of higher education.
Every two years, the association brings together regional and national university organizations and others with the goal of identifying areas and strategies for collective action. The outcomes of at least two such meetings have been collective statements of principles and recommendations to universities and governments. The first statement, jointly developed with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the American Council on Education, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, focused on good practices in cross-border education. The second stressed the need for centering internationalization on academic, rather than commercial, values.
Another important effort focused on ethical guidelines for higher-education institutions. These guidelines jointly developed with the Magna Charta Observatory, set forth a wide range of principles and practices and asked institutions to adopt them.
Finding common ground is not easy. The sheer quantity and diversity of higher-education institutions around the world makes finding consensus and shared interests a challenge. Most universities wish to join a group that seeks to promote their specific interests; the “what’s in it for my institution?” attitude is not conducive to cooperation. In addition, institutions are ever more status conscious in their choice of partners and networks and, alas, see international cooperation as a way of enhancing institutional prestige by association, and as a branding opportunity.
Another issue is what institutions and associations ultimately decide to do with these foundational statements. Do they take them seriously? Choose to incorporate them in their institutional and national policies and practices? Do they see consequences for action or inaction?
One reason for cooperation—on both the national and global level—is the shared perception of threat. Institutions and associations can often transcend their differences when facing an external threat. But often, in higher education, the threats are too diffuse or apparently too local in nature to motivate institutions to band together globally either to articulate a common vision or to get any closer to developing a single or even a federated structure that would manage the sector.
Yet the world faces global challenges that higher-education institutions are well positioned to deal with, which could serve as a rallying force. For example, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals are nearing their deadline in 2015 without having been reached; higher education has an important role to play in helping to achieve these goals to combat poverty, reach universal access to primary education, empower women, and ensure gender equality, among others. Colleges can also help mitigate the problems caused by climate change, including the cultural, economic, and social challenges.
Can higher-education institutions come together as a collective voice? Can they demonstrate to decision makers and society that they are central actors in finding solutions to these global threats? Much of our association’s work is focused on promoting this broader social responsibility of higher education.
Mr. Thrift’s proposition that a more formal and more integrated form of global governance may become necessary is an intriguing idea, but one that should be approached with caution. Given the need to balance institutional autonomy with accountability and regulation, clearly, the most powerful and palatable form of governance will be voluntary, signaling that institutions and organizations see a compelling need and will organize themselves to deal with it.
There are myriad difficulties in conceptualizing and carrying out even the lightest and most voluntary approach to such governance. How formal would it need to be? How and by whom would it be designed? How would the implementing bodies be constituted? Would they be a patchwork of agreements among associations and networks, a superbody or a series of superbodies? And, similarly with the questions with regard to our association’s statements, what would be the consequences of noncompliance with adopted rules?
The International Association of Universities acts a platform and a forum for more coordinated approaches to global issues, although it is not meant to be a form of global higher-education governance. Its relatively small number of members suggests that even in the era of globalization, the vast number of higher-education institutions place global cooperation low on their priority list. But if higher-education institutions have the will, the level of worldwide coordination could grow—and our association is certainly ready to work with them toward that goal.