Comment: Going global

Vivienne Stern is the Director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, which represents the UK higher education sector internationally.

She recently spoke at Going Global – a forum for education world leaders to debate international higher and further education issues and challenges. The article below is an extract of her speech around the UK’s role in international education

Going global

by Vivienne Stern, Director of the UK Higher Education International Unit, 2 June 2015

London is a city of just over 8 million people. Amongst them are people from every country on earth. Yes we have our problems, but broadly it is a city which is pretty comfortable with pluralism. Its universities are also international in their character.

And like many universities across the UK, they are made better by the international mix of their students and staff. In higher education, we know that we are preparing students for careers which may well be globally mobile. We know that many, if not most, of the great research challenges are international. We know that internationally co-authored work has a greater impact. Internationally mobile researchers are more productive. Internationally mobile students are more employable.

For all these reasons we see universities around the world looking to connect with each other. It is hard work building these international networks and relationships. The British Council plays a hugely valuable role in creating opportunities for us to come together and learn something about our different interests and perspectives. Global dialogues, and their contacts and expertise around the world, create the conditions for like-minded institutions and individuals to find each other.

This is about much more than student recruitment. In the UK 25% for academic staff are from overseas. Nearly 50% of research is internationally co-authored. And over 60% of staff have an international affiliation of some kind. Encouraging UK students to study abroad is a growing priority. And although it can be difficult to overcome the fear of taking that leap, I suspect many of us know from personal experience what a life affirming experience it can be. I recently heard a story from a student at Regents University who described studying in Japan. It seems everyone who has studied abroad has a story about crying in the supermarket. I know I do. But he said that once he got beyond the panic induced by Japanese packaging he found a huge wellspring of confidence. He said the experience taught him to start not with “in my country we do it this way”, but “how should I go about this in Japan?” He learned patience, open-mindedness and curiosity. He learned to listen and be more aware of the people and things around him. These are the kind of skills which are exceptionally relevant to good scholarship.

We are international, but we are European first.

We are fortunate to be part of one of the biggest knowledge-producing regions in the world. The Going Global conference will debate the merits of regional co-operation – in the ASEAN region for instance. It will discuss the importance of mutual credit recognition to support the movement of students, staff and graduates. Access to networks and funding to support collaboration in research are fundamentally important to our universities. It is European funding – through Erasmus+ – which has helped our universities increase the number of UK students who study abroad. We all gain from that.

UK universities strongly desire to remain part of the EU. It’s not perfect, and we have suggestions for reform too. But we are simply better able to address the great challenges facing the world – like climate change and health, food and water security and urbanisation – if there are mechanisms to help universities work easily together.

Just as water flows downhill, academics want to collaborate. They want to find the best people to work with, wherever they are. They want partners with something complimentary to offer – not necessarily just peers in rankings. There is no limit to what we can achieve in creating new knowledge. It’s the old human story. We are what we are as a species because we have devised ways of working together, of communicating in sophisticated ways, of sharing resources, of passing on knowledge from one person to another, of building communities and weathering hard circumstances through collective effort.

It is a grand statement – but I believe that all the really big challenges the world faces will be solved by people in universities. You will do it by building on each other's insights, by patiently navigating the difficult business of co-operating across different disciplines and national and institutional cultures.

I was in Norwich a couple of weeks ago, visiting a small university – Norwich University of Arts – which specialises in creative subjects like art and design, fashion and media. It has built a strong reputation in the UK but doesn’t have many international students or staff. While we were talking, I asked what I think is the most important question: For what purpose are you looking to establish international links? Part of the answer boiled down to this: they want their students to be exposed to as many influences as possible as they grow creatively. Just like they want their students to be exposed to great design, they want people with different cultures to sit together and talk and bring their own influence together with others. For me – in a job that is full of delight – it was a delightful idea.

So connecting cultures is a great theme for the Going Global conference. Because it is a solid gold fact - we are better connected.

Views posted in comment articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Sheffield.