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.

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13 Comments on “Multinational universities of the future?”

  1. […] “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 …” (more) […]

  2. anna notaro Says:

    *multinational universities*, what a splendid oxymoron!

  3. Vincent Says:

    is there not echoes of the banks about all this. What is it, a situation where they’ve got a template going spare.
    I suppose there is a market for enlargement by merger within a Provence. But within a State, it will run into the problem of primacy that the NUI encountered. And as to what the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland are up to -regardless of dubious allegiance – is just asking to be duffed up down a dark alley in the middle of some Gulf souk.

  4. Mary B Says:

    Once again it seems to be the spirit of intent that matters. Is it about developing understanding of key intellectual issues with different cultures, or is it about new (financial) ventures? Sadly it’s likely to be the latter. It seemed the discussion with Prof Schwartz was leading to the idea that no-one can fight the market – consequently academics can’t fight the commodification of education. I’m not sure about that – I don’t think most people predicted the fall of the Russian communist hegemony, but when there was sufficient will to remove it, it was removed (not necessarily by any Utopian alternative, but I guess that’s the nature of revolutions). If sufficient movers and shakers in the Academy speak up against the obsession with the (sole) business model at the expense of other models – like the pursuit of shared knowledge, there is a chance of turning things. But it’s hard to swim against the tide….
    BTW if I have left any apostrophes out of the above, the ‘ key on my PC is playing up. It may have been got at by one of my students who I have nagged for writing its instead of it’s!

  5. BrendanH Says:

    I’m beginning to think that the biggest threat to the modern university is visionary university leaders.

    • OK, Brendan. How so?

      • Al Says:

        The Grand old Duke of York?

        • BrendanH Says:

          There’s an element of truth in “The Grand old Duke of York”. Visionary leaders will bring about change and, at very best, half the time it will be in a positive direction.

          I think that if universities were substantially amenable to top-down management, they’d be very different institutions from what they are. Not that management and leadership doesn’t have an important role, but the resilience of good universities doesn’t come from the top.

  6. anna notaro Says:

    Brendan, I guess is simply referring to examples of ‘dystopian visions, put forward by ‘some’ university leaders, like the ‘big is beautiful’ one mentioned in the post

  7. jfryar Says:

    I really don’t see how such ‘bids’ can be considered a ‘multinational university’. What this campus seems to be is really nothing more than a means to set up multinational ‘institutes’. We already have research institutes with private partners that happen to be multinational companies. How is a research institute with multinational public bodies any different? Thousands of researchers head off to other nations for sabaticals and conduct research at other universities. I suspect all we’re discussing is the same thing – an institution (or group of institutions) set up by multiple universities that’ll allow an exchange of research staff. Hardly a multinational university since its quite specific that this will be a science campus.

  8. Jilly Says:

    We already have a model of a true multinational university: the University of the South Pacific ( which covers 12 Pacific island states and many thousands of miles. And it’s been going for decades.

    • anna notaro Says:

      it looks to me as if the issue is what one means exactly by the term ‘multi-national’ when applied to universities, most would understand a corporate model according to which a company operates in more than one country, universities by their own nature build cultural and economic bridges, i.e. they have an international vocation, the whole debate is whether to go about doing just that one should necessarily adopt a capitalist corporate model..

  9. Al Says:

    With educational standards legislated for in each territory, it may be hard to achieve?

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