GLOBAL: Innovative universities extend reach

The 27 senior academics travelled half-way round the world to hold their board meeting in Melbourne and on the way they stopped off in steamy Sarawak on the island of Borneo. The European Consortium of Innovative Universities had never been this far south before but it was unlikely to be the last time.

The executives from Europe included vice-chancellors, rectors and their deputies as well as other senior staff. They stopped in Kuching, Sarawak's capital, where Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology has an offshore campus that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Professor David Hayward, dean of Swinburne's faculty of business and enterprise, went to Kuching to meet them. Hayward said the Europeans were intensely interested in the way the university had established an Asian campus in conjunction with the Sarawak government.

"They were keen to see how Swinburne delivered education offshore and in particular to learn something of the history behind the project and the operational challenges of setting up a campus in an offshore environment where the culture and politics are so different," he said. "There was considerable interest by our European partners to work with us in some capacity in Sarawak and they were most impressed by what they saw."

The Consortium of Innovative Universities was founded in 1997 by 10 relatively young and entrepreneurial European universities. Their goal was to create a continent-wide network where those participating could exchange experience and best practice of projects in education, research and regional development. It now consists of 11 universities from nine European countries and three non-European associate members from Russia, Mexico and Australia - the last being Swinburne which hosted the Melbourne meeting.

During the discussions in Melbourne, the group considered ways in which the Europeans could collaborate with the Sarawak venture. Hayward said eco-tourism and engineering featured highly and one suggestion was for students in Europe studying for a degree in eco-tourism to take short courses in Borneo as the Sarawak campus ran six-week terms.

"The European Union has offered funding to increase student and staff mobility and we are extremely well placed to pursue that," he said. "We already have established relationships with the 11 European universities and are now preparing an application for funding."

With globalisation looming large, the European members of the consortium decided four years ago to invite a number of overseas universities to become associate partners. With a group of like-minded institutions having a similar profile of being young, entrepreneurial and leaders in innovation and change, the ECIU aimed to strengthen its global strategy.

The founding institutions in the ECIU have a number of features in common they share with their associates: all have a strong focus on engineering and social science, all are relatively young, entrepreneurial and progressive, and all have close ties to industry and to the regions where they are situated. Annual dues for the European institutions amount to EUR12,000 (US$19,000) while the associates contribute half that.

"[We] are committed to developing and implementing new forms of teaching, training, and research, to assuring an innovative culture within our walls, to experimenting with new forms of management and administration, and to sustaining and nurturing internationally minded staff," says a description of the consortium on its website.

"As a member of the ECIU, Swinburne has been able to put together a joint funding submission to develop a new postgraduate programme," Hayward said. "We plan to offer a masters degree in global innovation management to be run jointly by Swinburne, the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, Aalborg University in Denmark and Hamburg University of Technology in Germany."

"Swinburne staff have also been able to attend an ECIU leadership training programme where participants reflect on the different characteristics and challenges of strategic management in the context of higher education."