From National to Global Universities

A nice piece from David Wheeler in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges for universities in going global:

Universities, like companies, may need to make the transformation from being a national brand to being a global one. Siemens, once thought of as a German company, now says that it is “a global powerhouse in electronics and electrical engineering, operating in the industry, energy, and health-care sectors.”

Global brands can be adapted to various local markets, while still staying globally integrated. I just gave away a collection of international Coke cans, consisting of many different shapes and bearing Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish words, among others. But they were all instantly identifiable as Coke cans.

As some universities seek to be global, they often emphasize that a degree in one country will be exactly identical to a degree in another. I’m left wondering if a little more flexibility might be in order.

Human-resources departments may need to rise in importance as universities seek to become more global. The complexities of managing different people in different places are high, and human-resources departments, which are often simply the servants of academic departments at many universities, need to acquire and share their expertise on how to manage a mix of expatriates and local workers in a variety of countries.

I think this flexibility point is well made. Institutions do have to adapt to the environment in which they are operating. Education cannot be entirely context independent. Academic standards do, of course, have to be consistent. So, whilst term dates may be different and the timetable may look a little unusual, the curriculum, learning outcomes, assessment and examinations, admission requirements and academic staff qualifications, to name but a few components, do have to be directly comparable to ensure that the standards of awards and the quality of the student learning experience are maintained. These are fundamental to sustaining the institutional brand.

An earlier post noted the continued growth in branch campus developments by universities. All of the issues faced by global corporations, from maintaining the brand to developing HR operations, are shared by universities looking to grow a presence overseas. But it is very difficult to do this alone:

Lastly, I think that universities can learn from corporations about how to better manage partnerships. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: Universities approaching partners need to think of programs that would benefit both parties. Approaching a computer company and asking for money or machines to take back to the university doesn’t work for the company, without some benefit being offered. Companies have their own problems to solve.

The issue of partnerships is crucial. Any institution looking to establish a genuine global presence is not going to be able to do it alone and will in all likelihood require government backing as well as other partners to help with infrastructure development and navigating through a different policy and legal environment. None of this is straightforward but can be done and does bring rewards. In the long run.

There is an interesting link here to the recent story about the UK Universities Minister’s discussions with Goldman Sachs about ways to support offshoring opportunities for British HEIs. Branch campuses are not the solution to domestic economic travails but they are a serious option for universities looking to establish a global brand. Although there are many challenges associated with such developments, the benefits are significant.

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French universities argue over Sorbonne title

“French universities squabble over who has rights to Sorbonne”

The Times has a fascinating report on a dispute among French universities over who has the rights to use the title Sorbonne:

Fights over the Sorbonne, the seat of learning on the Paris Left Bank, usually involve students, riot police and ideology. The latest, however, is among rival chancellors and the city council. This time the stakes are for big money. The dispute is over the right to the name Sorbonne. At least six different universities are locked in a squabble for the brand, which in the eyes of foreigners — but not the French — has a prestige on a par with Oxford or Harvard. While US and British universities have marketed their brands, the underfunded and strike-prone universities of Paris woke up late to the value of the name they share. The trouble began when one of them, Paris IV Sorbonne, opened a branch in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and sold exclusive rights in the Middle East to the name “Paris Sorbonne”.

So far, so bad. But it gets worse:

Now everyone is following suit. About 70 versions of the Sorbonne brand have been registered by six universities, the Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, and commercial enterprises. The feud took off last year when the universities began banding together with President Sarkozy’s encouragement to create centres of excellence. The state will spend hundreds of millions of euros on the chosen few. Mr Delanoë pointed out that the Sorbonne building belonged to the council. The university bosses and the mayor held a peace meeting last week, agreeing that all Paris universities were heirs to the name and could use variants. But the battle is not over.

Perhaps naively I had assumed that there was just one Sorbonne and that there was some form of regulation in France similar to that in the UK which would prevent this kind of confusion over university titles and names. Evidently not. This sort of dilution of what should be a really prestigious brand can’t do anyone any favours. But it’s pretty difficult to see how they are going to resolve this easily.