GLOBAL: The plus and minus of Commonwealth legacy

"Commonwealth history is both a hindrance and a help," admits Association of Commonwealth Universities General Secretary, Professor John Tarrant. Seated in a hotel lobby in Wellington, New Zealand, the silver-haired head of the world's oldest inter-university network has now had nearly two years to come to grips with the double-edged nature of the association's origins.

On the one hand, he explains, the shared legacy of British rule gives the disparate members of the ACU a surprisingly high degree of commonality. But on the other hand, the Commonwealth carries negative connotations of colonialism for some people.
Of course, Tarrant is keen to overcome the latter and emphasise the former. "We want to see the ACU being part of a forward-looking family of members, rather than being some sort of hierarchy of membership."

Such advocacy for the ACU is a key part of the role Tarrant took on nearly two years ago. Having retired in 2006 as vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield at the age of 65, he could not turn down the opportunity to step in as acting general secretary of the ACU in May 2007, securing appointment to the role at the end of that year.

Tarrant plays down suggestions he was hired as a fix-it man. Rather, he says, the organisation needed refocusing and it needed to get its governance and management into shape. "That's been quite challenging. But it's also been very enjoyable."

Less enjoyable perhaps is the travel demanded by the role. With 500 members in 52 nations around the globe, it is appropriate that Tarrant's academic background is in geography although that is little help when it comes to coping with jet lag.

"Travelling is very wearing - especially for a man of my advanced age," Tarrant laughs. "But it's vital, you can't do the job without it." Case in point: this interview was conducted while Tarrant was in New Zealand to meet the leaders of six of the ACU's eight members in that country.

He had just come from similar meetings in Australia and next stop was Nigeria to attend a meeting of African university heads. The itinerary also highlights the diversity of the ACU's membership - a diversity so broad it is hard to see what many of the member countries might have in common apart from the historical accident of British rule.

But Tarrant insists the ACU is relevant to modern universities in the developed and developing worlds, arguing that the legacy of a common education system means ACU universities have a lot in common.

"A university in Canada, say the University of Toronto, probably has more in common with the University of Auckland than it does with a university south of the border in the United States. And certainly a university in England has a lot more in common with a university in New Zealand than it does with a university in France."

Such commonality makes the ACU a logical place to start for universities that want to work with others around the globe for whatever reason - benchmarking, exchanges, research collaboration. "Why would you make life difficult for yourself by benchmarking against a university that has a different system?" he asks.

And the developed nation-developing nation gap within the ACU is not necessarily a barrier. He cites a New Zealand example, suggesting a New Zealand university wants to work with an African university on drought-resistant crops. Again, the ACU provides a good basis for finding such partners.

Tarrant is currently involved in boosting the ACU's advocacy role in response to members' wishes and one of the first steps will be organising a meeting of Commonwealth vice-chancellors in tandem with the three-yearly conference of Commonwealth education ministers scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur in June. The meeting will enable vice-chancellors to deliver a communiqué to the ministers and to emphasise the role universities can play in addressing issues ranging from the economy to climate change.

Tarrant says other activity includes increasing the number of professional networks organised by the ACU from the current four, which cover marketing and communications, libraries and information systems, human resources, and research management. "I'm trying to move us toward six by the end of this year," he says.

Another key area for increase is membership. Tarrant says nobody knows the size of ACU's potential membership, particularly given the rise of private universities in some countries, but he certainly wants to attract more institutions.

"I would be disappointed if the ACU didn't have closer to 700 or even 1,000 members in five years' time."

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.