Global Research Networks: Experiments in Internationalization

The following article was written by WUN Executive Director, Professor John Hearn, and appeared in the Spring 2014 of IIE Networker Magazine.


Globalization through history has been inevitable and relentless and is arguably at its most extensive in current times, with economic, environmental, political, social, and cultural change all accelerated by improved communications and information. Internationalization may be considered as the strategies adopted to respond and adapt to and engage with globalization. In the arena of international higher education and research, the role and influence of leading universities have advanced as they become thought leaders and participants, rather than the ivory towers of the past. On the frontiers of such developments, international university networks have encouraged teamwork in order to achieve more than the capacity of individual universities. There are more than 50 established networks, largely developed in the past 15 years, each with their distinct regional or global objectives in research, teaching, mobility, and service. Drawing on this experience, what are the indicators for success or failure? It is a convenient truth to claim advantage for international networks in accelerating internationalization and best practice, creating opportunity and innovation, and attracting resources to address global challenges. Yet there are also inconvenient truths in higher education and research that cannot be ignored, including the challenges of rapid expansion versus quality, rising costs versus limited improvement, and inadequate rote learning versus the development of talent. What are the priorities, possible solutions, and contributions that can be gained through international partnerships and networks?

Future Framework

The logic behind the internationalization of higher education is powerful. The purpose includes communication and transfer of knowledge (two-way), innovation in approaching global challenges, cultural understanding and appreciation of different strengths, and the development of talent among students and staff to be fit for the future. Higher education has become recognized globally as a vital ingredient in economic and social advancement. Yet the current currents are not simple, and the storm winds require vigilance and expert navigation. There are rocks to sink those without charts and experience, and the opportunity costs of staying away include loss of competitiveness, advancement, and resources. In recent years the various ranking systems claim to benchmark and show how the best are building, but there are risks with rankings as they can channel towards uniformity and loss of diversity in national culture and practice. They can encourage unrealistic expectations and a pride that leads rapidly to a fall. In 2009 the OECD predicted that the waves of the global financial crisis would take longer to surge around academia and universities than the immediate effects on banking and business. The effects would be serious reductions in resources, including state and private funding and philanthropy; threats to the links with businesses and the community; and threats to international access, diversity, and employability of talent. UNESCO stated that at no time in history was it more important to maintain and increase investment in education, both in lesser and in more developed countries. The global financial crisis is an opportunity to question the excess and return to basic principles and core values. To the extent that this opportunity is taken, higher education and research will emerge stronger. The major international partnerships and networks are pioneers of innovation and the acceleration of internationalization. Their distinct objectives and strengths in research, teaching, mobility and models of engagement can be experiments and pilot studies to test what works and what does not. Retaining the historic values and strengths of tradition are ever more important at a time of drift. There is nothing new about international cooperation in higher education and research, but what is emerging is a will to develop more equal partnerships, engage in multi-institutional teams, work for longer term results, and join in international networks that must achieve more than is possible for individual institutions. The 2011 meeting in Shanghai of the Presidents of the Worldwide Universities Network, who form a global think tank of leaders from 17 research universities in 11 countries and 5 continents, composed a list of the key drivers of university reform to 2020. These included:

• The war for talent, in diminishing supply while generational change in academia is upon us;

• Privatization of universities and higher education, with new models to meet the market;

• Real interdisciplinarity of research, requiring vision and support from funding agencies;

• Access and equity, creating opportunity for the best and brightest;

• Reform of the curriculum and its delivery through new technologies, including the experiment with MOOCs.

• The student experience, with innovative learning and teaching, and opportunities for study abroad and work experience;

• International dimensions mainstreamed at all levels to meet the needs of staff and students in the future;

• The transfer and commercialization of knowledge, with enlightened sharing of intellectual property;

• The central role of universities in community development, bringing opportunities for citizens at all ages;

• Influencing and shaping societies for the future.

This “top ten” presents a challenging list for enlightened university reform and can be interpreted further according to global and local priorities, capacities, and assets. There has been a significant increase in international and regional university partnerships in the past 10–15 years. These have mostly adapted and developed to focus on the shared objectives of the membership. Several are research-led partnerships, while others focus on teaching, mobility, benchmarking ideas and activities, administrative meetings of university presidents and deans, or on community involvement. It should be possible to examine the ten year results of some of these networks to ask what works, what does not, and how some networks thrive and some decline. It is not the purpose here to name or to dissect networks, but to identify some general or specific factors that lead to success or failure, along with the opportunities for future development.

Convenient Truths

The frontier of international higher education has become more complex. Fifteen years ago, the major emphasis was on international student recruitment and exchange. The motives were undoubtedly in engaging bright students to amplify diversity and cultural engagement, and numerous study abroad programs were implemented. There was also a rapidly escalating need in countries, where governments had cut funding to higher education and the “gap” was filled by the urgent and lucrative recruitment of large numbers of students from abroad. This trend was assisted as the demand side for higher education, in China and many less developed countries, expanded rapidly, with almost a doubling in each of the last three decades and a further doubling to more than seven million international students in the coming decade.

There is added complexity in trans-border education and campuses and the rise of leading Asian universities in the international rankings. But for at least the next ten years, there will be sustained and doubled demand for international education, with more than 80 percent of the global demand being from China and other Asian countries, albeit with increasing numbers flowing the other way, particularly to China, where in 2012 for the first time there was a balance between outgoing and incoming students. But what can international university networks do to help? The answer in part is to focus on the distinct research capacities and strengths of their members to address local and global challenges. This is the strategy of the Worldwide Universities Network and the Australia Africa Universities Network in climate change and food security, public health in non-communicable diseases, reform of higher education and research, cultural understanding, and sustainable resources and environment. These research programs can help to give access to emerging and established researchers towards international careers. Training programs for public and private sector leaders can be a powerful additional boost.

Inconvenient Truths

There may be inclinations in academia to rest on well-deserved laurels and to continue the successes of the past ivory towers—some whose arrogance match their endowments— as adequate to meet the opportunities of the future. Forget it! The world is much more interesting than that. Furthermore the pace of university development is accelerating. From unlocking the brains and ambitions of the current and next generation, to unlocking the as yet cloaked knowledge mines of the present, to unlocking the innovation, application, and transfer of the future, universities are in a lead seat. There is encouraging data in the rapid rise and performance of many universities from developed and from BRICS countries that are under 50 years old. Will we see some newer universities leap ahead of their longer established and venerable elders? I think so, in analogy of the leap ahead of innovative technologies over tired ones. In response to the global financial challenge, a few have committed to be on the frontiers with the knowledge mines of the future and the minds of the new generation. Others chart a middle course, with a bet each way to maintain parity and current practice. Others retreat into their comfortable shells—led by micromanagers and accountants. The paradox is that the success of the future top 100 universities of the world requires international leadership and engagement in serving staff, students, and stakeholders. International engagement is the solution, not the problem. The solution is in true engagement, appropriate entrepreneurship, and being a player, not sitting in the stands as a passive observer. You get what you give. The failures of the future heed the enemy within, wanting a quiet life and safe surroundings. As a result we have rocketing costs of international education, with less than startling improvement of quality and service, and curricula that are out of date, overloaded with incremental accumulation, and that do not deliver the essentials (fundamental principles, frontiers of research, and what translation of knowledge means to our lives)—as every inspired curriculum should. We have an unemployed younger generation in many countries, a ghastly and disgraceful loss of talent, and a waste of opportunity to form the global teams that can make a difference. The solutions are in our grasp, only requiring leadership and vision.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The major universities and academic leaders of the present carry heavy responsibility in engaging and applying knowledge and resources efficiently to solve intractable challenges. It is encouraging that the process is underway, with teamwork between academia, business, NGO’s, international agencies, and high level individuals. This is an exciting model for future development, with equal partnerships, sustainable talent development, and significant impact. But there is a long way to go. With the right leadership, environment and commitment, and international university networks and partnerships can play both an experimental and an experiential lead in pioneering the models for the future, serving as a test laboratory for success. To close on a personal observation based on experience: if you don’t want to really play, stay away. Nothing is as deadly as a lukewarm partner. The difference of success and failure in international university networks, as in much of life, is (i) you must share the passion for the challenge; (ii) you must commit for some years to invest and give time for the return of investment – which will come; (iii) leaders must lead in focusing objectives and backing the strategies with appropriate resources (which will soon more than pay for themselves); (iv) the culture of the university must evolve to embrace internationalization at all levels, including awareness, promotion and promotions; and (v) make it a two-way street with your international partners. The rewards are the future of international higher education and research and our core responsibility to the next generation of researchers and leaders.


IIE Networker Magazine is a publication of the Institute of International Education.

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