United Kingdom

UK universities in Uzbekistan: what is the ‘right thing’ to do?

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Trying to catch up on reporting on Central Asian higher education, here’s an article from the UK’s The Guardian newspaper from October 2013 (thanks to David Wolfson for bringing it to my attention).  It’s on partnerships between UK universities and institutions in Uzbekistan. Full text here:

UK universities move into Uzbekistan even as human rights fears grow

Such partnerships pose potentially very difficult decision for the UK partners. They have to find a balance between

  • their internationalisation/international agendas
  • their broader mission as an institution and how they interpret that in the way they undertake their responsibilities to their various communities (for more on how UK universities engage with these issues, see my published article Understanding universities’ responsibilities to their wider communities)
  • the national (UK) political environment
  • the fact that ‘how we do things here’ can be very different in Uzbekistan
  • cultural norms, particularly in regards to how Western countries view human rights

London Metropolitan University responds by saying ‘it was aware of the country’s [human rights] record, but that it was committed to both the exchange of ideas and the raising of educational standards.

The University of Bath goes a little further, with their spokesperson saying: “Working to improve academic standards is an apolitical act and in no way constitutes support (tacit or explicit) for the political regime of the country. The work … was carried out in a collegiate spirit of helpfulness and support. It reflects the capacity of higher education in the UK to strengthen civil society.”

Nonetheless, there is no escaping that making the conscious decision to work in Uzbekistan means negotiating the political and ethical environment, and any attempt to ignore that would be disingenuous.

International students, international communities

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I recently started a new job as Registrar at St Antony’s College, which is part of the University of Oxford. Each student at the University is a member of a College, and the College provides residential, pastoral and social facilities as well as providing teaching (for undergraduate students) and a base for researchers, seminars, conferences and so on. Many Colleges accept both undergraduate and postgraduate students whilst mine is one of seven postgrad-only Colleges. We specialise in international relations, politics, economics and history of particular parts of the world. St Antony’s is unique in that we host seven centres, each focussing on a different part of the world. Our student community is very international – around 85% of our students are from outside the UK. We also have a high number of visiting researchers, who come to work with our fellows as well as use the College’s fantastic library and academic/social resources.

One of the (many) things I like about St Antony’s is its cosmopolitan nature. Just yesterday I met with one of our former students from Chile, who is now head of the Chilean athletics team! Today I’ve been in touch with people in Norway, Pakistan as well as down the road in London, to name just a few places. Come the autumn term, there will be regular seminars on aspects of life and society around the world.

The international character of the College can be hugely beneficial for our student community, but it also leads me to thinking about how we integrate our students and what steps we can take to help them settle into life in the UK. Students who are new to the UK (and let’s not talk about the particular quirks of Oxford’s way of doing some things!) can have queries that range from big (help me with my student visa) to mundane (where can I buy bed sheets). What can my office – as well as the other student support services in College – do to make the path as smooth as we can for our students? And once we’ve done that, what we can we do to enhance their experience of being in Oxford, but without impinging on their main priority, which is to study?

Elisabeth Gareis has an interesting article in University World News this week looking at an aspect of the second question. She has investigated friendships between international students and host nationals, pointing out the positive effects such friendships can have: improved language skills, greater levels of well-being, enriched perspectives in the classroom and so on. However, the reality is that these kinds of friendships don’t exist as much as they should/could, and Gareis offers some good suggestions for institutions to help facilitate this.

She is absolutely right, though, to point out that ‘accountability also lies with the students themselves’. It’s hard work being an international student (I’ve been one myself and can testify to this!): continually putting in more effort than if you were studying in your home country and often dealing with cultural adjustments as well as changes to your study environment. But ultimately the experience you will have abroad will be much richer and more positive if you can make that extra effort to integrate yourself.

Nevertheless, the burden should not fall entirely on the international student. Host national students also need to try much harder to get on with their international colleagues. A Tajik friend of mine recently returned from studying in the US and said she didn’t make any American friends, and that is not for want of trying. At a recent Society for Research into Higher Education seminar, Paulo Pimentel Bótas of the University of Bath pointed out that UK students are often less well prepared to critically reflect on their own work than Chinese students brought up with the Confucian style of self-criticism before criticism of others. As such, host nationals can learn as much from nationals of other countries as international students themselves can learn – but the major challenge is to enthuse and engage home students to do that.

If you have examples of steps you have taken to integrate yourself as an international student, or things you have done as a home student to help international students, I’d love to hear about them.

My first journal article has been published!

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I’m delighted to let you know that my first article has just been published online!

Entitled Understanding universities’ responsibilities to their wider communities, the article investigates what responsibilities universities have to the communities around them beyond their immediate constituents of students and staff. Using a framework developed by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement to highlight some of the issues a university may need to consider when undertaking engagement activity. The article uses case studies from eight UK universities and concludes that:

Universities needs to be clear about what their aims, purposes and priorities are. Engagement can be a motivation for searching for these purposes and, if necessary, redefining them to fit today’s circumstances.

You can access the online version on Taylor & Francis’ website at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13603108.2012.667846

And if you can’t access the online version, download it here: Sabzalieva_Understanding universities’ responsibliities to their wider communities

Reference details:

Emma Sabzalieva (2012): Understanding universities’ responsibilities to their wider communities, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education.

What’s your brand?

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My MBA graduation, April 2012
Institute of Education academic dress as modelled by me at my MBA graduation ceremony, 4 April 2012

Yesterday, I attended my MBA graduation ceremony (I completed the MBA last year but the ceremonies only take place in April). My university, the Institute of Education, University of London, put on a great day and the Director  gave a congratulatory speech that managed to be motivational whilst grounded in pragmatism, a difficult feat to pull off.

My MBA was not your typical finance-and-business course, but specialised in higher education management. So whilst we covered finance, it was geared towards higher education – how to interpret university financial statements, understanding resource allocation mechanisms, what a temporary creative cross-subsidy means and how to implement one and so on. The MBA also allowed us to explore higher education specific topics, such as managing teaching and research and managing the student experience. It was hard, hard work to study part-time whilst working full-time but well worth it, not just for the knowledge obtained but the networks I now have and the skills I have developed. I’d be very happy to discuss the course with any readers who might consider an application – just leave me a comment or email me.

During his speech, the Director spoke about the Institute (affectionately known as “IoE”) and its early 20th century foundation as a teacher training college for London County Council. Today, it offers more Master’s degrees in education-related subjects than any other university in the UK,  a range of other graduate and doctoral courses, and still offers high quality teaching qualifications. So whilst the IoE is rooted in its past, it has adapted and diversified to meet contemporary needs. In corporate speak, the IoE has a clear brand that it is becoming increasingly sophisticated about communicating to its own students and staff as well as the outside world.

I think branding in the higher education sector is a fascinating subject. It uses a concept taken from the profit-making private sector and applies it to a sector that is, these days, semi-public and semi-private but more importantly, is influenced by the students and staff that are part of the institution. Paul Temple (coincidentally, one of the MBA course directors!) makes this point in his article University branding:

So I draw a distinction between branding – which, in our case, is what people come to think about a university as a result of what it does and what its staff and students have achieved over the years; it is slow to change and comes from inside – and branding work, which can come from the outside, can make a marginal difference in some cases, but usually has little impact on the things that matter.

Paul Temple (2011): University branding, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 15:4, 113-116

(Let me know if you would like a copy of the article – it’s an entertaining read)

Universities are also hugely diverse places and this adds to the challenge of trying to create a clear message about what it is trying to do. For the IoE, this is made by simpler by its focus on education and related social sciences, but for multi-faculty institutions with (for example) full-time and part-time students, sciences and arts courses, face-to-face and online learning, this message can be much more difficult to find and talk about.

As a result, the impact that branding can have in a university is unlikely to be the same as branding in the corporate world. Changing a university’s logo is superficial compared to the influence that its people (staff, students etc), its history, and its offerings (teaching/research mix, interaction with different communities – local, national, regional, international) have.

The Guardian’s Higher Education Network commissioned a roundtable discussion recently about this very subject. Contributors to the discussion agreed with my view that a logo change doesn’t make a big difference, but argued that it is possible for universities to agree on core values, and that students and staff can be involved to help reinforce the brand. For example, this could mean featuring student case studies in a prospectus (there were some in my graduation ceremony brochure too, including a testimony from a scholarship student from Tajikistan that aimed to tell you about the importance of the scholarship to her ability to contribute to the future of Tajikistan… oh and by the way, here’s how to donate to the scholarship fund…).

These points about branding are not just applicable to UK universities. I have written before on this blog about Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan and how it is positioning itself as a centre of international excellence. Nazarbayev’s challenge is about both brand and reputation (not to be conflated, as Paul Temple will tell you). Other universities in Central Asia may not be aiming as high or as internationally as Nazarbayev but the growth of private providers in the region and the increasing number of students enrolling in higher education provides a good impetus for universities to understand their brand and consider whether they feel it is a good reflection of their past, their present and their future.

I’d like to end by reinforcing the point that a university’s people are major influencers in how its brand is perceived by others. Messages from students and academics come across as more authentic than slogans and campaigns dreamed up by marketeers (slick and effective as they may be). On a micro-level, I have contributed towards the Institute of Education’s brand by sharing my very positive experiences of studying for an MBA in Higher Education Management in this post. Students at other universities have done an even better job of “selling” their institution – just watch the video below made by 172 students at the University of Québec-Montréal (Canada), which has had over 10 million hits on YouTube. You can’t fail to be cheered by it!

Attention-grabbing headline further degrades the value of universities

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I’ve just seen this article in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper and I am seething.

The headline – ‘Students to pay up to £50 an hour to attend lectures’ – is probably the worst part of it. It’s quite literally a cheap shot at universities by trying to demonstrate their worth through some kind of twisted cost/benefit analysis of the value of a lecture.

Yes, I agree that it’s important for future students to understand the benefits they will get from going to university, as opposed to pursuing a different path when they finish school. But these benefits can be extremely difficult to quantify, and for a young person (and, these days, their parents too) thinking about their future, I suspect this article will only add to the sense that there must be a list of tangible (mainly finance-related) outcomes on offer from a university education.

For a much more reasoned and robust perspective on the value of a university education which does not let the dollar signs cloud its views, I recommend an article by Professor Sir David Watson called ‘What is a university for?’

It may have been published back in 2002, but its messages are still very relevant – and in fact Watson kicks off with a 1359 quote from Lady Clare: ‘through their study and teaching at the university, the scholars should discover and acquire the precious pearl of learning so that it does not stay hidden under a bushel but is displayed abroad to enlighten those who walk in the dark paths of ignorance.’

In typical fashion, Watson gives a list of 10 contemporary challenges for British universities. These are:

1. The expansion of the knowledge economy

2. Investment and “something for something”

3. Accountability and the “quality wars”

4. Instrumentality and student choice

5. Student lifestyles

6. The Information Age Mindset

7. Social polarisation

8. Sector organisation

9. Public confidence

10. The necessity of research

Articles like the one in the Telegraph today will simply induce yet another moral panic for the British higher education sector, right at the time when universities should be doing everything they can to overcome the ‘dark paths of ignorance’ by continuing to deliver quality higher education in the face of severe budget cuts.