David Jobbins. Lack of an explicit global strategy can be dangerous for universities, an international specialist from the University of London has warned.
Tim Gore, director of global networks and communities for the university’s international programmes, said that institutions can learn from industry in developing global strategies – but he stopped short of recommending an ideal model. More research is needed, he added. Gore, author of a report for the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) published ahead of its forum in Kuala Lumpur, said that few universities have well-articulated global strategies that their staff and stakeholders can easily relate to and share.
Spelling out the risk, he said: “At the very least there will be missed opportunities and wasted resources; at worst, universities may find themselves on the road to extinction as environmental changes around them threaten their niche.”
He claimed that many universities had grown their international work without a clear strategy.
“There is also a tendency to confuse a business model with a strategy. A mode of collaboration, such as a franchise arrangement, is a business model rather than a strategy.
“Strategies employ business models but have a longer term time frame; take into account the likely effects of competitive actions and changes in the operating environment; build learning loops into the processes; and, most crucially of all, manage a changing risk environment.”
He suggested that universities characteristically had cautious strategies, with small-scale venturing.
“This has led to solid long-lasting institutions but this is a major trade-off against adaptability,” Gore said. For example Dr Henry Mintzberg, a leading thinker on corporate strategy, measured the compound growth of his alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, at 3.78% over 152 years.
Building a global strategy for a university is far from easy and a foreign partner is often crucial to bridge the learning gap, Gore argued. “The environments universities operate in are typically highly regulated and a university operating in its own complex regulatory environment may have to deal with a large number of equally complex but substantially different overseas environments.”
The New York and Laureate models
The aim is of developing a truly ‘global’ university that can be recognised anywhere is exemplified by the initiatives led by John Sexton, president of New York University, in the United Arab Emirates and China.
“Sexton has added Abu Dhabi and Shanghai as the next ‘portals’ in his network, complementing an existing network of study-away sites in strategic locations around the world that Sexton dubs as ‘idea capitals’."
The concept is based on a philosophy of equality between campuses, with students able to move between campuses with their credits transferred into parallel programmes elsewhere, taught by a similar faculty mix. This is no small undertaking. NYU Shanghai is being set up as an independent entity authorised to grant degrees and jointly operated by NYU and the East China Normal University – a mechanism similar to the University of Liverpool’s approach in China but with NYU Shanghai as an integral part of the NYU global network.
Gore argued that the attraction of this strategic approach lies in its simplicity of purpose – the establishment of a globally recognisable brand with student mobility at the centre. But he suggested it also has several weaknesses, principally that the numbers of students who take advantage of the mobility are always likely to be the minority, and towards very few supplier countries such as the US and UK.
A different version of this model is exemplified by Laureate International Universities, which allows universities it acquires to preserve their local identity while “harmonising the hidden workings into an efficiently run network”. In essence this relies less on global mobility and more on economies of scale and scope in the underlying systems that support the more than half a million students over more than 100 campuses worldwide.
The 'weak' global partnership model
Gore’s 'weak' version of the global network concept seeks to establish a global presence through involvement in or creation of global partnership organisations.
“Many universities approach the same goal through partnership and cooperation,” he said. “Thus we see the growth of global alliances such as Universitas21 or the World Cities World Class (WC2) university network uniting City University London with a range of partners around the world.
"Such alliances seek to gradually build a web of interrelating activities between the member institutions. Although this type of network can be almost insignificant to its members at one extreme it can also provide an incubator environment to grow multi-dimensional links between members.”
Learning from business
In building a global strategy, Gore said that universities will need to take into account factors distilled from current corporate strategic thinking. He said universities rarely have the type of funding that is needed to establish full campuses overseas, and respond to the problem in many ways.
“Sometimes, there is a pull effect when a local institution sets up with the aim of bringing a particular type of institution into the location. An example of this is the British University in Dubai.
“Alternatively, in the campus set up by Liverpool in China the impetus was from the UK.”
And he was dismissive of the ‘comprehensive internationalisation’ strategy set out in a NAFSA publication by John Hudzik, who defines it as “a commitment, confirmed through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research and service missions of higher education. It shapes institutional ethos and values and touches the entire higher education enterprise”.
Gore said: “Hudzik sees universities working in an increasingly borderless space, where ideas are almost completely free to move around the world and interact. Grand goals indeed, but comprehensive internationalisation cannot be cast as a strategy in itself but more as a vision or mission.
"The NAFSA document has much that is useful to say about being clear on goals...but it offers little help to conceptualising these as realisable strategies that address the real constraints most universities struggle with."
He argued that universities will have to take into account factors that emerge from current corporate strategic thinking, in the form of various ‘models of engagement’.
“It would be useful for universities to have access to a number of such models as a frame of reference for the creation of their own strategy.”
Three models of engagement

His paper to the OBHE forum sets out three basic models of engagement:
    A global network established through joint programmes, research and exchanges throughout its membership.
    Focused networks created through a deeply rooted and multidimensional engagement with a few locations judged to be compatible with their values and competencies in regions dubbed to be strategically important for that university.
    Development of global products based on an assumption that a coherent and similarly motivated audience can be found at different locations around the world.
Gore cited the University of London international programmes as one example, and said that many other universities approach a global model through a global network of franchised programmes.
“Franchise agreements vary considerably but usually involve delegating all or most of the teaching as well as elements of the assessment process, which are then controlled through a validation or moderation process.
"Its main risk lies in the degree to which there is demonstrable quality control at a distance, as the recent problems the University of Wales have suffered amply demonstrate.”
“Universities face an increasingly competitive and risk-laden global environment,” Gore said.
While corporate strategies are clearly not entirely relevant to the world of universities, many messages from the strategic processes developed for the corporate world are highly pertinent. If the corporate world needs to be seen as a good citizen then this must be even more the case with universities.
Models of engagement that build in learning, complexity and community responsiveness and move beyond mere short-term business models are increasingly necessary.
* Tim Gore's report is titled Higher Education across Borders: Models of engagement and lessons from corporate strategy. It was published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education this month.