Nov 05 2012 | Posted by SSSandy

The Great Game of Today

The following op-ed piece was written by Professor John Hearn, Chief Executive of the Worldwide Universities Network and appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 5 November 2012. The opinions presented are his own.


Churchill was right when he predicted that the empires of the future would be empires of the mind. Around the world, universities with international ambitions are engaged in a furious scramble for resources, alliances and manpower that evokes the imperial conflicts of the nineteenth century in the era of the Great Game.

In this competitive environment, Australia has enjoyed an enviable run of success. Our higher education system is among the best in the world, and we have a great track record in attracting international students. Education has turned into a knowledge business that brings in more than $18 billion a year, and that’s before the long-term partnering and cultural benefits are taken into account.

International education is big business and makes for enduring diplomacy. But increasing globalisation brings its own challenges. Students, staff and researchers have unprecedented mobility, but they also have high expectations and demand to see value for money from their international hosts and partners.

For Australia, the lesson that needs to be taken on board right now is that complacency can kill and that international competition is accelerating.

I have just returned from a month-long marathon of strategic higher education meetings in Africa and Europe, during which common themes emerged: the increased influence of student power as fees increase; the rise of universities in Asia, bringing the benefits and risks of competition; the movement of talent and the maintenance of quality; and the enhanced role of international knowledge partnerships and networks in building sustainable success.

But the most persistent message was a trumpet call for radical change in the way that universities go about their business. University leaders have come to recognise that fundamental reform is necessary in order to remain competitive, self sufficient and sustainable.  A major factor in building quality and performance is the development of clear strategies that prioritise strengths, diminish or eliminate weaknesses, and retain the basics in the delivery of education, research and internationalisation. 

The pressure to keep up with the pack has brought varying responses from country to country. Some advanced economies are struggling to meet the cost, while others are putting education and discovery as firm national priorities. Institutions in some developing countries are walking in the footprints of the developed stars but risk losing their cultural souls.

China is investing hugely in its universities. Sweden is set to educate 60 per cent of its population to university graduation on the public purse. Britain is doubling its university fees but also its student loans – and debts! At the recent Australian higher education meetings in Melbourne, vice-chancellors and government were no doubt pleased to be told by Sir Steven Smith of Exeter University that Australian higher education enjoyed robust support from government in comparison to the UK. 

Australia’s investment in higher education and research is holding steady around the OECD average. But Ken Henry’s Australia in the Asian Century report has the potential to be a defining moment, a chance to place higher education and research in the front line of our international strategy and to compel our universities to engage more fully with their regional neighbours. It marks a major and perhaps overdue attitudinal shift for Australia.

For research-intensive universities, the greatest challenge now is to maintain quality and competitiveness at a time of rising costs and declining resources, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In teaching and learning, new methods and technologies are increasingly costly.  There is also a shortage of talent and availability of senior, experienced academics and research leaders, while conversely there is unemployment among new graduates as the generational transition is postponed along with retirement.

While navigating the currents of change and competition, universities also need to factor in the role and influence of the various university rankings systems. These are at best are an imperfect international set of benchmarks for research and education.  At worst they are a destructive influence on cultural identity and diversity among universities that dumb down creativity and evolution.

In Shanghai last year, the presidents of the 18-member Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) met to discuss the principal drivers for higher education and university reforms to 2020. They identified the war for talent, accelerating privatisation, truly interdisciplinary research, novel learning and teaching along with curriculum and the student experience, and an international dimension in everything that we do.  Highly rated also were integration with national and international communities, translation and commercialisation of knowledge, and the shaping of future society. 

Organisations such as WUN are vital if higher education wants to move away from the Great Game model to a more sophisticated form of international engagement. Over the past ten years more than 100 international networks have developed, each with strategic goals in aspects of research and education, mobility and resources.  Some networks have local or regional ambition, while others are truly global.

The advantage of such networks is that they enable peers to meet, gain intelligence of shared opportunities and challenges, benchmark in essential indicators for innovation and implementation of their strategic plans, and sometimes cooperate on the division of labour and teamwork in the attraction of resources. 

Cooperation has been happening for a very long time at the level of the individual researcher or educator, but the larger critical mass that is afforded through institutional engagement and endorsement brings infinitely more power and impact to the results that can be achieved.