Opinion by Mirko Savkoviç | Leadership in Academic Solidarity

 

“For   the   Common   Weal”,   proudly   states   Scot   language   inscription   which translated into English bears the meaning “For the common good”. It is the moto of the Glasgow Caledonian University, our younger neighbouring higher education institution in Glasgow, Scotland. I remember driving next to their building during the part of my joint graduate degree spent in Scotland. It is a strong message about responsibility of higher education sector to provide for the common good which spreads beyond our campuses and communities. I would argue that it is responsibility which would include solidarity within the higher education institutions themselves. And trust me; there is a lot of space in which leading higher education institutions may show formal (or even informal) solidarity with their neighbouring institutions. Yet, there are structural challenges to this form of intra- sector responsibility and academic solidarity which require deliberate and exhaustive efforts to address. How one can achieve recognition of excellence among the leading institutions while at the same time he or she is promoting the best practices of inter-institutional academic solidarity? What are the best ways in which external evaluators may recognize institution’s contribution to the overall quality of the higher education system at national and global level?

Young graduate looking for further education is overwhelmed by the amount of information she or he will find out there. As internationalisation of higher education is taking hold throughout the Eurasia it is sometimes hard to make the right choice among so many great opportunities. It is creating the feeling of anxiety and stress among the student population. Leading universities across the region are presenting convincing arguments why they are the best ones. Some of them really do not lack impressive list of features which will hardly anyone left with no impression. National University of Singapore may feature its place in dynamic urban centre of Asia, Humboldt University its Nobel laureates, Oxford its history, Jawaharlal Nehru University its social engagement and so on and so forth. It is hard for top students to make informed decision about the best fit. At the same time competition among institutions is harsh. Institutional leadership is putting forward ambitious new goals while administration is often struggling to keep up with the amount of work ambitious development strategies are putting in front of them. Everyone is aiming at that top layers on major international rankings which is sometimes negatively affecting our primary mission in society. After all, administrative and academic output and results are evaluated by these results which are turning achievement of them into top priority. Sometimes it is the case even if it is creating unfortunate external costs for local academic environment. It may also create stressful working environments in which talent will be lost on chase after statistical measures often almost randomly chosen by ranking designers.

While it may be unpopular to pronounce, everyone is aware of the fact that there is informal hierarchy among domestic academic institutions. Everyone is aware that there are limited resources and that there are simply not enough spaces for each candidate at the top institution in each country. This is leaving certain segments of qualified candidates without opportunity to achieve their full potential. International competition is increasing gap between the best and the rest as more and more talent, resources and attention is focused at the achievement of the top results in top institutions. In long term it is strengthening social divisions and hierarchies which may have devastating consequences both for individuals and society at large. There is number of research which is showing how underprivileged categories of students are seriously underrepresented in leading institutions. At the same time, economic, cultural and political leadership is more often than not dominated by graduates of the major institutions. At the same time, quite often, less prestigious institutions are producing graduates without adequate career perspectives. This is creating resentments and fertile grounds for negative societal developments. It seems like a good enough reason to argue for a change of the approach. Leading institutions need to do more to support “the rest” of academic communities in their countries and preferably even internationally.

It is only natural that governments and societies will try to support development of top institutions. They are source of valuable expertise, and often the source of national pride. Yet this means that public resources are invested into very specific segments of higher education. It also means that there will be fewer resources for “the rest” of the national higher education. Do not get me wrong, I am definitely not arguing against investment into prestigious institutions. As a student of the University of Glasgow, Dublin City University and Charles University of Prague I am aware what are the benefits and importance of state of the art facilities. I know why everyone is trying to establish at least one institution which will be capable to stand tall on the international field. This is absolutely understandable. Yet I think that those institutions once established do have some responsibility towards the rest of higher education sector. In their strategies for cross-institutional and international cooperation, they need to be careful not to limit themselves only on other institutions at the top layers of international rankings. They need to focus part of their attention on other institutions in their immediate neighbourhood and in less developed states. There are plenty of little things that can be done. My goal here is not to list all of them but I will consider just some.

Large prestigious universities should consider how they may open their facilities for students outside of their campuses. They may have additional classrooms, laboratories or offices which may be needed by the smaller neighbouring institutions. At the University of Glasgow for example our library (which belongs among some of the best academic libraries in Europe) is for the longest period of time open for our colleagues from the University of the West of Scotland. There are other segments of cooperation, including accommodation, between the two institutions. On the one hand, it is opening certain attractive new opportunities which may not necessarily be available to our colleagues. On the other hand, it is enriching the University’s insight by bringing new perspectives at the campus. There are plenty of other formal and non-formal ways of cooperation practiced all around Eurasia and the world. Not least of them is that not uncommon practice where professors spend part of their working week at smaller institutions. In this way they are providing them with a quality of education comparable to that at their primary institution. I experienced benefit of such local and often unacknowledged (even looked upon) mobility first hand during my undergraduate education at the relatively small Cankaya University in Turkey. Some of our professors were at the same time working at some of the top universities in Ankara and Turkey. If I did not have this opportunity I may have not been ambitious enough or adequately informed to aim for continuing my studies at top universities in Scotland, Ireland and Czech Republic.

My argument is that we shall not look at all of this as a marginal part of academic life. We shall do our best to embrace and recognise it as it is serving our societies at large. We need to create working groups and initiatives which will advocate for the recognition of excellence in academic solidarity. We need to push for recognition of these criteria in the creation of international rankings and other forms of public image creation. That is where ASEF, ASEAN University Network, European University Association and many other stakeholders are entering the scene. They possess institutional knowledge, expertise, capacity and a rich network which may help them a lot in pushing for such a change of the policy. All of them need to work together to understand basic principles, exchange specific ideas and agree on set of rounded recommendations on academic solidarity. By working together they will reach wider audiences and spread their word all around our region. Our meetings may represent an excellent opportunity to make first steps into this direction and to keep track of the progress made out of it. Those may not be extremely ambitious or far reaching goals at the initial stage. It is important to recognise and acknowledge the principle and to develop a set of relatively easily achievable specific tasks. In this way we will enable wide participation and selection of the most adequate policies for specific local circumstances and needs. We need to formulate a framework which will trigger competition in excellence in academic solidarity. We need to recognise those institutions which are open to the society around them. We need to recognise institutions which are providing its outputs and resources to the rest of academic community and to society at large. This is the form of excellence that may be capable to avoid the trap of social exclusion and division. This is the form of excellence which will enable the best usage of the human potential and talents.

It is our responsibility after all to give back. No one of us would be capable to reach his or her full potential without cumulative work of those before us. For me it is the “Via, Veritas, Vita” moto of my primary school. It means “The Way, The Truth, The Life” and each one of them is equally important as understood in a holistic way. It may sound unconventional and ambitious at the moment, but those who will be brave enough to make pioneering steps into the right direction will be recognised as such by societies at large. Yet, to do it properly it may be beneficial to look into the best practices and advices out there. Improvisation is fine but it may lead us only up to a point. After that cumulative knowledge of combined ideas will help us reach new targets in academic solidarity.

 

Opinion piece by Mirko Savkovic

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