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Obsession with rankings can obsruct global HE collaboration, conference hears

A “designer handbag” approach to university partnerships based on global rankings is obscuring the real opportunities for partnership between universities across the world with common interests, the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference will hear.

Non-ranked universities hope the glitter of a partnership with Oxford, Cambridge, Cape Town or Witwatersrand will rub off on them. Instead, they should be seeking out pockets of excellence across a much wider range of institutions, Jo Beall, Director of Education and Society at the British Council, will tell the world’s biggest annual international higher education conference.

University leaders from across the world, heads of state and policy makers will be among more than 800 delegates gathering in Cape Town, South Africa, between May 3 and 5. Media FHE will be there for the British Council to provide daily conference briefings online and social media coverage of the event. The contribution that higher education can make to nation building and ways in which international collaboration between universities across the world helps to meet national and local priorities will be key themes in a packed programme.

Dr Beall warns that the ranking system works against realistic partnerships between a broader range of universities.

“I hear people saying they want to partner only with Oxford or Cambridge.  When I was at the University of Cape Town as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for  internationalisation, I would have people coming in saying they wanted to partner with us because we were the best university in Africa and I would ask what about us?  What could they offer us in return to build a true partnership?” she says.

Also on the agenda at Going Global are sessions on how universities can respond to the refugee crisis, the value and shortcomings of rankings, and whether internationalisation can be a negative force if based on Western models. The British Council will publish new research on how 26 nations compare in terms of levels of government support for international higher education, and there will be the launch of SA-UK Research chairs to promote international exchange and increase the number and the quality of Masters and PhD graduates.

The tension between English as a medium of instruction and national languages and the student protests in South Africa will also feature.  Students have been holding demonstrations, disrupting teaching and damaging buildings across the country in protest at fee levels which they say exclude the children of middle and lower income families from higher education. The “Rhodes must Fall” campaign calls for curriculums to be made more relevant and indigenous and less influenced by the colonial past.

Spokespeople for the student movement have been invited to take part in sessions on student leadership and decolonising the mind and curriculum.  “There will be no fudging of the issues and students have been invited in but the conference should not be dominated by South Africa when the rest of the continent have made the effort to get there,” says Dr Beall.

In terms of the UK, one of the challenges for universities is knowing how to navigate and understand the higher education map in African countries beyond the ratings, she added.

“In the UK we have a differentiated higher education system with clusters such as the Russell Group and University Alliance. One of the things that makes it difficult for UK universities to engage is the resistance in Africa to differentiation and the sense that all must be equally resourced in a continent where resources are limited.”

Good universities outside the rankings and pockets of excellence in mediocre institutions are quite hard to identify, but offer valuable opportunities for collaboration with the UK, she says.

“You could have a consortium of like-minded universities, for example, focussed on raising the professional labour force in the fastest urbanising continent with a fast growing middle class and demand for professional and skilled workers.”

The conference will debate the place of mission groups, such as the newly formed African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), a Russell Group type alliance of 15 research-intensive universities from eight African countries, including six in South Africa.

“This was a very creative response to recognising the need for differentiation across the continent while realising that within the context of South Africa alone that would be a red rag to a bull because the demand for equity and spreading the margarine very thinly across every institution is particularly fraught due to the racial apartheid background,” Dr Beall said.

 

Follow Going Global news and events on Twitter @HEGoingGlobal #GoingGlobal2016

 

Going Global venue: Cape Town International Convention Centre
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