My week - 7 April 2014 - the WUN and university partnerships

A regular update from Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Langlands.

Sir Alan Langlands

Last week I made my first brief trip to South Africa to attend a meeting of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), a group of seventeen universities from five continents committed to working together on a number of global challenges where universities can make a positive impact.

As an antidote to the hefty (but otherwise excellent) University briefing pack I read some of Joel Joffe’s compelling book ‘The State vs. Nelson Mandela’ by way of preparation.  Joffe was defence attorney to Mandela and other senior figures in the African National Congress in their landmark trial and his book exposes “the astonishing bigotry and rampant discrimination” experienced by the accused.

Fifty years on things have changed beyond all recognition, a conclusion reinforced by three humbling experiences:

  • an uplifting conversation with an ambitious young black woman from Port Elizabeth who was studying law at the University of Cape Town
  • a meeting with a Leeds alumnus actively engaged in developing social housing for 50,000 people in Johannesburg
  • a meeting with Presidents and Vice-Presidents from the Universities of Ghana, Pretoria, Dar es Salaam, Zambia, Makerere and Ibadan in which they charted the decline in support from Western universities and the increasing influence of the Chinese and global business interests keen to capitalise on the natural resources in this vast continent.
As on previous trips to Kenya and Eritrea, I was struck by the resilience of the human spirit, ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make real and lasting change.

The current work of WUN focuses on four global challenges: responding to climate change; the globalisation of higher education and research; public health; and understanding cultures.  There is strong involvement from senior academic staff from Leeds across all four areas and, over two days of discussion, I was struck by the importance of migration as a unifying theme across all four challenges, and was also left with a clear sense that the more we put into WUN, the more we stand to get out of it.  A number of our academic staff, ably supported by Louise Heery, take great credit for what has been achieved so far.

There are certainly promising signs that being part of this network can drive new research collaborations, promote career development, lever external funding, influence policy makers, and increase the quality and quantity of research publications.  Having experienced WUN at first hand, I will now work with others in the coming months to weigh these benefits, present and future, against the inevitable opportunity and transaction costs of being part of this diverse partnership which is still evolving and striving to maximise its impact.

Closer to home, we have learned how to get the best out of university-to-university partnerships through the White Rose Consortium and the N8, and of course individual academics and groups work naturally with colleagues around the world.  As new technology and improved transport links reduce the size of the globe and the mobility of academic staff and students increases, it makes sense to consider the pros and cons of building enduring international education and research partnerships on a bilateral basis and as part of a wider network.  Time will tell if WUN can provide both.

Finally, my brief bouts of travel over the past six months were largely pre-arranged but with some respite until much later in the year, I now look forward to my first Spring and Summer at Leeds – believe me, I much prefer LS2 and Wharfedale to Heathrow …….

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