Sunday, April 11, 2010

Emergence of the Global University

The modern universities were instrumental in building the modern nation state. Think Oxbridge and Britain, the Ivy League and the United States or the Ecoles and Modern France, and one gets the idea. The modern secular universities effectively took over learning from the Church, and promoted scientific research and nation-based citizenships instead. So, the universities and national identities remain tied by some sort of intellectual umbilical chord to this day.

But that may all be changing. We are currently experiencing one of the severest economic crisis since the Second World War. Once in a lifetime recessions such as this, with the social pains it brings, act as inflection points for civilization, and brings new ideas and concepts on its wake. This recession is no exception. In years immediately preceding the recession, despite the great progress of technologies of globalisation, the human civilization was going the opposite direction intellectually: the reaffirmation of nation-state thinking under the cloak of the theories of ‘clash of civilizations’. However, the crisis suddenly exposed the limitations of nation-state thinking in the face of global integration of technology and transaction – why else should the British taxpayers worry about Greek pensions and Latino homeowners in California – and brought in a new consensus around globalisation.

Admittedly, the debate isn’t completely settled yet. We can go either way from here. Last time, we were in such a crisis, the reactions of big economies were to close the door on emerging powers and bring in an even bigger crisis – the Second World War. This time around, we should be wiser. It is apparent that the old way of G7 consuming and everyone else producing will not work; even the interim solution of expanding the elite club to G20 is not the long-term answer. The only way, perhaps, to continue living the way we do is to create a sustainable structure of sharing prosperity, something the nation-state based thinking has so far fallen short of. So, we need a new wave of globalisation: if Globalisation 1.0 was about globalisation of capital and investment, we need to move towards Globalisation 2.0, which should be about globalisation of skills and opportunities.

And, if this has to happen, the universities, at once the twin brother and midwife of the nation-state thinking, have to bring it along.

There is increasing consensus around the Globalisation of universities, both in the Academic circles and policy-making levels. In the last few weeks, the Indian cabinet, one of the most conservative in the developing world regarding the state control of curriculum and academic accreditation, recommended a bill to the country’s parliament allowing foreign education providers to set up campuses on Indian soil and award degrees which are not locally accredited. Not by coincidence, around 1200 delegates from universities around the world gathered in London in a British Council sponsored conference Going Global, which, over two days in March, discussed the emerging model of the Global university.

The outcome of the conference, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, is to imagine a new ‘Global Research University’, which goes beyond the limited model as perceived in the Indian bill, current experiments with global campuses in Malaysia, Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi, and even the ‘Multiversity’ model imagined by Clerk Kerr, the then President of the University of California, who saw the modern university as a confederation of multiple constituencies. Challenges persist, but the academic community is currently trying to go beyond the tried-and-tested model, let’s say, of NYU, which sees its Abu Dhabi campus as the ‘Second Revolving Door’ to the campus as in New York, and move towards an unifying model for global research efforts encompassing graduates and academic community from around the world.

It is fair to guess that in building this, technologies of globalisation will come in full play. It will also not to be out of place to hope that the globalisation of universities and knowledge, more than anything else, will help us avoid the ‘nation-state trap’ and create a fairer, more integrated and sustainable, model of globalisation.

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