A report on the 13th General Conference of the International Association of Universities

Higher Education and Research Addressing Local and Global Needs University of Utrecht, July 2008

Report by Valerie Clifford, OCSLD, Oxford Brookes University


The papers from this conference are on the conference website.

The International Association of Universities

The International Association of Universities (IAU) is an international non-governmental Association of higher education institutions and organisations from around the world. It was formed in Utrecht in 1948 to ‘serve as a global forum where higher education leaders can come together to discuss, examine and take action on issues of common interest and achieve shared goals through co-operation’. It was seen as imperative to create collaborative links and bridges of understanding to restore and guarantee peace after WW11. Its current priorities are:

  • Internationalisation of Higher Education
  • Intercultural learning and dialogue
  • Higher Education and sustainable development
  • Access to Higher Education
  • Higher Education meeting  ‘Education For all’ goals

For information please see the IAU website.

The Conference

The IAU conference returned to Utrecht 60 years on to look at the responsibilities of higher education and research institutions to serve the world around them. What has higher education contributed to the betterment of humankind and how can it further improve its contribution? Hence the theme of the conference: addressing local and global needs. The questions at the centre of the conference were:

  • Are higher education institutions (HEIs) addressing the most pressing challenges facing humanity?
  • To what extent does higher education contribute to the promotion of social justice, peace and equity?
  • How well are HEIs balancing their responses to the pressures to secure economic competitiveness and to reduce socio-economic gaps and increase social cohesion?
  • Are HEIs exercising fully the responsibilities that come with the central role they play in scientific discovery and its applications?
  • Are HEI leaders sufficiently engaged as moral or civic leaders, building public trust, understanding and support for higher education and research?

Some of the themes that ran through the conference were: the tension between the social and the economic agendas; the extent to which universities respond to or shape society; the need to think locally and act globally (and not the other way around); the extent of university autonomy versus government and private industry involvement; and how we are reaching into the unknown, trying to develop new synergies between arts and humanities and science and technology, and new pedagogies.

The following account gives my interpretation of all the plenary sessions and the two workshops that I attended. The actual papers and presentations can be read on the conference website. I wish to thank Oxford Brookes University for the opportunity to attend the conference and I hope that this report gives you some insight into the IAU and the issues that HEIs are struggling with worldwide and some of the successful initiatives.

The Programme

The conference attracted 450 from 120 HEIs and HE Associations. Interestingly, the official languages of the IAU are English and French, and translation services were available in those languages, while Spanish speakers outnumbered French speakers.

Opening Dialogue

The Opening Dialogue of the conference brought together representatives from UNESCO, OECD and the World Bank, and representatives from HEIs in Africa, South America and Europe, to discuss ‘The University as Local and Global Actor’: the expected and real roles and responsibilities of higher education institutions; their capacities and constraints to fulfill them; and how international organizations such as UNESCO, the World Bank and OECD may help to create the policy environment in which strong and responsible universities can work to address local and global needs.

The presence of the World Bank in this line-up seemed to focus the discussion on finance rather than draw out the issues for the universities in the different continents. The HE representatives saw World Bank finance going into basic education but not to HEIs. The World Bank representative said that it was up to the HEIs to develop their own visions and to come to the Bank for funding, not for the World Bank to go to them. There was a focus on developing research as a core function of universities, but this was questioned later when some discussion of the need to focus on the adequacy of the learning and teaching arose to ensure adequate critical thinking and problem solving skills in graduates. There was a plea for the World Bank and OECD to work together on educational initiatives.

The OECD representative introduced their feasibility study on learning outcomes (see details in Special Forum below). This was not well received and he suggested that it might give an indication of quality do that governments could trust universities enough to involve them in solving the problems of society.

This was rather a difficult start for the conference as it did not set out an agenda for the following sessions to build on.

Thematic Plenary 1: Higher Education – Serving and Shaping Society

In this plenary Juan Ramon de la Fuente (University of Mexico), Brenda Gourley (Open University, UK) and Monte Cassin (Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan) debated whether HEIs are adequately and effectively responding to the most important challenges of human and social development today? How can higher education contribute to ensure that the Millennium Development Goals are met? How must the three traditional missions of higher education – teaching and learning, research and, and community service, be balanced to anchor HEIs locally while serving humanity more globally?

Brenda Gourley (OU) took this session off with a bang giving a rousing speech on the need for HEIs to ‘get it right’, as education is fundamental for: enlightened citizenship; peace and harmony; and the survival of the planet. To ‘get it right’ we need to revisit: traditional curricula and traditional delivery methods. She saw a need for the arts and sciences to utilise each other and for professional programmes to look beyond information to moral standards and new pedagogies to deal with this. ‘What critical thinking pulls apart social responsibility puts back together.’ Brenda saw a world where so many have so much and yet show such little concern for those who have so little. She saw today’s young people as deciding whether the planet survives or not and we as educators having a critical role in fostering, supporting, encouraging and equipping our students with the values and skills they need to drive forward initiatives. She introduced the forum to the Talloires Network , an international network of HEIs committed to civic engagement ands social responsibility, engaged in service learning. (see http://www.tufts.edu/talloiresnetwork/).

Monte Cassim from Japan spoke of shaping rather than serving the community. He spoke of HEIs playing to their strengths and developing their specialist niche and seeking out synergies with partner institutions. He talked of the tensions of trying to nurture global leaders when many students come from countries that have no freedom of speech. He asked how we transform trust into friendship? He felt that the neutrality of universities was of utmost importance for bringing people together to talk and then doing things that mattered. His institution believes in fostering excellence and nurturing creativity. They spend 20% of their budget on scholarships. The university curriculum is modern and their research is focused on global movements and transformations, resources and human security, innovation and home development. Monte presented the expansion and achievements of his university stressing the need for universities to continually redefine their ideals in the light of rapid change without eroding the founding spirit embodied in the institution. He said that having a mission was not enough that it must be gradually implemented – small cycles of success cheer you up!  You have to seek a win-win situation for the HEIs stake holders.

In the discussion Monte turned around the mantra of ‘think globally, act locally’ to ‘think locally act globally’, seeing creative solutions being developed locally and then applied globally, not the other way around. This saying resonated through the conference as speakers emphasised the need to focus on the local and not the global, and that many local problems are shared globally.

Thematic Plenary 11: Higher Education and Innovation – the Good, the Bad and the Unknown

This plenary was fronted by a representative from Hewlett-Packard and  HEIs in Israel and Hangzhou, China to discuss the role of HEIs in innovation. Are they involved in measuring and understanding the full impact of innovation and scientific discoveries on the daily lives of citizens? Are they fulfilling their ethical responsibilities to assess, monitor and explain the results of scientific research? How and under what conditions does research translate into innovation?

The Hewlett-Packard representative talked about their place in the knowledge chain. Zhu Jun showcased the huge new university at Hangzhou and their tremendous achievements in just a few years. This is one of many new universities financed through enormous government investment in the sector this decade. Zhu Jun explained that the local area consists of many small businesses so there was no resource base for research and training, their teaching and research achievements have been based on the government’s national programme for scientific and technological development

Yitzhak Apeloig described Israel as one of the most innovative countries in the world, second only to Silicon Valley, in terms of high-technology companies. He illustrated a number of programmes aimed at developing entrepreneurship within the Bronica Entrepreneurship and Innovation Centre. In the Techno Brain and Biztech competitions the 20 semi-final teams receive expert coaching and the three winners get prize money to start their own companies. In a Technion for Life programme young students are coached by alumni and the students in turn have to assist high school students with their studies.

This session was one of showcasing achievements rather than discussing issues.

Thematic Plenary 111: Institutional Reform in Higher Education to Meet New Goals

Chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, the Federal Minister of the HE Commission in Pakistan, the Vice Chancellors of the University of Lisbon and Rhodes University and the President of the European Students Union debated the reforms that are needed or taking place to meet the multiple goals of HE.

This session got down to bringing out some of the global/local issues for HE. Atta Ur-Rahman pointed out that there were 85m below the age of 19 (i.e 54% of the population) in Pakistan and a massive programme has been launched to improve the quality of, and access to, HE. Eminent Pakistan engineers, scientists and academics are being attracted back to Pakistan by huge budget increases in academic salaries and investment in HE (2,300% increase) and in Science and Technology development (6,000% increase) and access to a large digital journal library is available. 1,000 scholars are now being sent abroad to study.

Sallem Badat (Rhodes) offered 10 propositions/key questions that HEIs need to address when conceptualising, planning and implementing change. He stressed that these need to be contextualised with each country constructing its own agendas. The propositions centre around the decisions and tensions between the social and economic purposes of HE, diverse goals, equity, access and quality, and the need to change teaching and learning.

Ligia Deca (ESU) saw the main aims of HE as being: the promotion of active citizenship and democracy; development for the labour market; knowledge development; and personal development. She spoke of the improvement in student participation in HEIs. Students now participate in governing bodies at local and national level and there has been the development of student parliaments. She argued that equal partnership should become a standard for modern universities.

Special Forum: Comparing, Classifying and Ranking HEIs

The President of the American Council on Education chaired this session and it was contributed to by representatives from HEIs in Dublin, the Netherlands and Shanghai and by the OECD. This forum addressed: the rationale and need for comparisons: ranking and classifications and the differences between these approaches: the player involved: and the criteria and methodologies used. It also examined the impact of such different approaches on institutions, on public understanding of HE and questioned the limitations and risks involved.

Ying Cheng from Shanghai University gave an interesting account of how the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities were developed for their own use and continue to be developed for their own use. It is the aim of 40 Chinese universities to become ‘World Class’ so they did the rankings to look at where the Chinese Universities sat. His university plans to become ‘World Class’ by 2050. The rankings are based on publicly available research information and so do not take account of education or social services and do not reflect those institutions that do well in social science and the humanities. Some universities refuse access to their data so are not included (which contradicts the claim that the rankings are based on publicly available data!). The department has not, and does not, receive any funding to produce the index. The staff were obviously rather bemused by the seriousness with which their database is viewed around the world!

Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin) presented research showing the influence of rankings on students, employers, HEIs policy makers and academics. Her study indicates that this influence was not necessarily benign but that we need to take the existence of the rankings seriously. Rankings were shown to incentivise institutional behaviour and, therefore, could be subverting the directions of universities. There are 170,000 universities in the world so number 500 is in the top 3%! International postgraduates are particularly sensitive to global rankings as these seem to influence their employment opportunities when they return home. 

Franz van Vught (Twente) discussed the fact that rankings were focused on research and did not include teaching and learning or anything on the curriculum beyond Study Abroad and transnational programmes. There is no mention of institutional community engagement and were all descriptive and not about quality.

Richard Yelland introduced the OECD’s feasibility study for the International Assessment of HE Learning Outcomes.  He said this was not about ranking or standardisation but about informing practice. This was not ‘bought’ by the audience and certainly not by the student delegation. The aim is to try and measure and compare what undergraduate students know and can do in different types of HEIs and countries, in order to provide better information to HEIs, governments and other stakeholders. The feasibility study is looking at: ‘a generic skills strand and a discipline strand  .. . whether it is possible to devise an instrument which enables us to make reliable statements about the performance of leading HEIs of diverse types, cultural and linguistic contexts – and second, test the practicalities of implementation.  The OECD also aim to’ provide a diagnostic tool for improvement at institutional level . . .a value-added strand’. A fourth strand will be a contextual strand to ‘explore the development of contextual indicators and indirect measures of outcome at institutional level in recognition of the need for a multidimensional approach to HE quality’. Richard can be reached at: Richard.yelland@oecd.org and the website is at:

Parallel Workshops

Two sets of eight parallel workshops were offered (see Appendix A). I attended the two sessions described below.

The Bologna process beyond 2010 and beyond Europe?

This session was addressed by Lesley Wilson for the European University Association reviewing the progress of the Bologna process and Rafel Cordera Campos from UDUAL, Mexico describing what Mexico is doing to promote co-operation with HEIs in LA. There was no time for discussion.

Teaching and learning for cultural diversity locally and globally

This session was addressed by Fazal Rizvi , Illinois, Ora Kwo, University of Hong Kong and Cristina Escriagas, Technical University of Catalonia, Barcelaona.

Fazal talked of issues of diversity presenting themselves in different ways in different localities, for example language differentiates in Australia and colour in America. He questioned whether theoretical issues are adequate to think about diversity and felt that the way we have described culture is no longer useful. He sees much of the discourse as reifying culture as static, anthropological reductionism which leads to cultural essentialism and ignores identity and processes. Identity politics is about culture and culture changes constantly and also the way people see their culture. We need to focus on cultural dialogue and negotiation, learn about other cultures in the context of interconnectivity, interactivity and interdependence. He wants a politics of interactivity not a politics of culture.

He talked about a set of epistemic virtues:

  1. Understanding relationships – how relate to other practices and how others are seen
  2. Historical understanding e.g. emergence of Pakistan.
  3. Reflexivity – if going to understand the above then need to reflect on and understand our own identity and where it has come from.
  4. Criticality – be critical about forces that have produced our identity
  5. Imagination – need to move away from being reproducers and be imaginative.

He wants to move beyond describing to understanding.

Fazal called for curriculum and pedagogic renewal. He advocated the need to have graduate attributes and to bring humanities teachers into science classes (echoing Brenda Gourley’s ideas). He saw a need to get debate going at international associations for the disciplines, as internationalisation is an institutional and disciplinary culture issue involving curriculum, epistemology, ontology and the knower.

Ora spoke of her work to build communities of learners among her teaching students in a time of calls for educational reform in Hong Kong. She sees teaching as ongoing enquiry and worked with her students to develop their understanding of diversity. She involves students in leading seminars and uses peer assessment. In the evaluation the students expressed dissonance about venturing into an unknown pedagogy, discomfort with ambiguity and complexity and vulnerability in terms of their structural position (for introducing change). Ora emphasised the need for respectful listening, co-construction of expertise and the use of imagination.

Ora has published her work in a book called Developing Learning Environments.

Cristina spoke on responding to multicultural and intercultural challenges by rethinking and renewing curricula, including issues such as ethics, global citizenship and intercultural skills. The Global University Network for Innovation looks at how universities serve the common good. She saw the challenge as understanding the concept of knowledge itself and the need to link areas of knowledge to understand complex problems. Rethinking the social value of HE  as contributing to social development rather than to individual competitiveness.  She saw the ‘Need to anticipate, shape an guide actions towards another possible world’, and the need for values education in science and technology.


The conference was a mixture of showcasing development and discussing the need to develop students as future world citizens and leaders as well as discipline experts. The importance of the HE sector in shaping and responding to social and moral imperatives was highlighted and the enormous investment and development of the sector in countries such as Japan, Pakistan, Malaysia and China. However, if the developments in the sector are addressing the local and/or global social and moral imperatives was left open. Discussion also focused on the development of new curricula and pedagogy, emphasising the need for the arts and humanities and the sciences to join forces in this development.

A message that stood out for me was that to affect curriculum change these debates need to take place within international discipline bodies. The work of the HEA Subject Centres here in the UK could be important in priming these debates.

‘Think locally, act globally.’

For future conferences see Appendix B.