The Guardian (Reino Unido) online

A global network that puts international relations at the heart of HE business

Publicado em 08 setembro 2011

Por Colin Grant

The University of Surrey has launched a Global Partnership Network to boost mobility, curriculum and enterprise on an international scale. Colin Grant explains its objectives

International relations should be central to business. Just days after coming under attack in Kabul, the British Council has reopened, and thus made a symbolic and powerful statement. Education, intellectual exchange and diplomacy are crucial to building deeper understanding of the world around us. This is why for the University Global Partnership Network (UGPN), launched last week at the University of Surrey, international relations is at the heart of our business objectives.

The UGPN is a multilateral network of 'preferred partners' that is global in reach but local in scale. Its core founding partners are the University of Surrey, the University of São Paulo, and North Carolina State University. There are also important partnership relationships with Seoul National University (College of Engineering initially), Banco Santander and Fapesp (the São Paulo State Research Funding Council).

The broad understanding of network-building has helped students and academics benefit from generous mobility, curriculum and enterprise support through Banco Santander, a collaborative partner for the UGPN through the 945-strong Santander Universities network.

Meanwhile, strategic pump-priming of major research collaborations has been made possible with the support of Fapesp, Brazil's pre-eminent state funding council. As relationships have developed, e-mails, tweets and texts cross cyberspace, the global has begun to feel distinctly local, which has made the project more effective. Its priorities include research with global impact (eg nursing, climate change and mathematical models, political intervention, sustainable tourism). Other joint projects already underway include systems approaches to human and animal health, sleep, cardiovascular disease, neuropsychology and the performing arts.

Priorities also include a commitment to prepare graduates: mobility is an important part of employability and global citizenship. The UGPN also wishes to press forward with curriculum innovation (the Global Graduate Award scheme in modern languages and interdisciplinary sustainability, for example).

Above all, it is a shared ethos of partnership that has enabled the UGPN to come together. Without that, and without trust and vision, the challenge of bringing together so many disciplines, in research, teaching and outreach across four continents would have been beyond us.

The UGPN took the view from the outset that it would not privilege some disciplines or activities over others. Undergraduate exchange is key to a richer student experience (UK universities need to do more to make the connection between international mobility and the student experience). Research big and small, speculative or applied is as important to the partnership as it is to its founding members. Scale is also important. We took the view that in order to be effective (ie to measure progress in action and not words), a large membership would not be the best way forward. Small really is big.

The preparations for this formal launch have taken considerable time, engagement, tenacity and vision. Reaching this point has not always been straightforward. Staff departures, budget cuts, national agendas and priorities have thrown up challenges. The process of internationalisation can also challenge existing practices in individual institutions when, in fact, it is nothing more than an extension of the very concept of a university. Businesses have long grasped the need to meet the challenges of globalisation with bigger alliances to mitigate risk, share services and widen footprints. In some ways, universities as institutions have proved rather more reluctant. Perhaps this is because of a long and noble history of freedoms defined by disciplines. The greater the pressure for integrated solutions, the greater the need for interdisciplinary thinking. The UGPN is an extension of that history and those principles.

Professor Colin Grant is VC International at University of Surrey.