Multinational universities of the future?
Big is beautiful – that’s the message that has taken hold of higher education policymakers and some university leaders. Governments have, in a number of countries, been pushing for rationalisation, mergers and strategic alliances, in the belief that a large university in several locations will find it easier to make a global impact and produce returns in innovation and investment. Universities themselves have, at least in some cases, been open to this message, and have sought to expand their reach through mergers, new branch start-ups and acquisitions. In many ways the university scene has begun to resemble the corporate world as it was before the recession.
The latest example of this kind of thing is visible in the slightly breathless news coverage of the bid by England’s Warwick University to establish a branch campus in New York. Well, that’s how the story has appeared in some of the media on this side of the Atlantic; in fact this is a bid by Warwick, as one of 18 bidders overall, to lead a new ‘science campus’ in the city in a competition run by mayor Michael Bloomberg. If you read the news reports carefully, you’ll probably conclude that Warwick is unlikely to be the winner, as Bloomberg is hoping to recreate the innovation energy of California’s Silicon Valley; and as the powerhouse of that area, Stanford University, is one of the other bidders, I wouldn’t particularly place my last dollar on Warwick’s chances. Of course I wish them well, as I have long admired the energy and imagination of the institution.
However, it is all part of the mentality that has brought campuses of overseas universities to China, or Malaysia, or the Middle East Gulf states, or (soon) India, and now maybe New York. Some of these ventures have worked, but many of them haven’t, and it certainly seems more difficult and complex to establish a successful (say) European university campus in the Far East than it is to set up a Coca Cola bottling factory.
I am not against these ventures, and believe that when properly planned they can succeed, though only if it is genuine partnership with the host country. But I very much doubt whether there is a viable university model in the idea of a multinational university with a global presence across several countries. Universities cannot be centrally directed across boundaries in the way some corporates can be; the autonomy of academics alone makes that a somewhat daunting challenge. On the whole, I prefer the model of inter-institutional strategic collaboration across multiple countries between sovereign partners.
I don’t see a future of a small number of globally active, large scale super-universities. Or if they did emerge, I’m far from sure that they would be the real powerhouses of innovation and scholarship. Unless of course I’m very wrong.