CANADA: University networks and the Global South

After World War II, international networks of nation-states such as the United Nations and other Bretton Woods organisations and later the OECD, EC, ASEAN and others exploded onto the world stage. Given these precedents, formal networks of universities should have followed. With a few exceptions, however, their rapid rise did not occur until the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, 'networking' was one of the key words in higher education for the 1990s, writes Qiang Zha in the Academic Matters blog, The Global University.

The recently reported establishment of the International Forum of Public Universities (Forum international des universités publiques), which arose out of the 125th anniversary celebrations at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) in 2004, is a reminder of the growth of international university alliances, associations and consortia in recent years.

Under globalisation, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, universities in different parts of the world need to be closely linked, as the rhetoric suggests, in order to benefit both education and research.

The list of international university networks has been growing rapidly since the 1990s, though some appear to be successful and sustainable while some others failed or diminished.

A list far from exhaustive would include: Academic Consortium 21, ASEAN-European University Network, Association of African Universities, Association of Commonwealth Universities, Association of Pacific Rim Universities, Association of East Asian Research Universities, Circumpolar Universities Association, Coimbra Group, Committee on Institutional Cooperation, Compostela Group of Universities, Europaeum, European University Association, Institutional Network of the Universities from the Capitals of Europe, International Alliance of Research Universities, International Network of Universities, International Association of Universities, League of European Research Universities, Santander Group, Universitas 21 and Worldwide Universities Network.

If such alliances of specialist institutions (for example, business schools or institutions of science and technology) are also taken into account, the list would become longer to include the Community of European Management Schools, Consortium of Latin American Studies Programmes, Consortium Linking Universities of Science and Technology for Education and Research, European Association of Distance Teaching Universities, European Consortium of Innovative Universities, the IDEA League and the TIME Network, among others.

If North American and Western European universities used to dominate the membership of international university consortia, a notable phenomenon in recent years has been increasing participation by Global South universities, in particular those in East Asia and South America. Why have they tried to join in, or even set up, international institutional networks? What are the gains from this type of membership?

With few exceptions, international networking alliances and consortia claim to give their member universities a powerful competitive advantage - not least in their core activities of teaching, research and service.

For instance, Universitas 21 aims to facilitate a global-focused research perspective among member universities and "to create opportunities for them on a scale that none of them would be able to achieve operating independently or through traditional bilateral alliances". With the same stance, the Worldwide Universities Network vision is to work together "across disciplines tackling the world's global problems".

To what extent are these networks fulfilling their claims, and in particular for Global South members? In almost every new alliance, establishing research partnerships and collaboration among member universities is said to be a priority. Are alliances really an effective way to develop research collaboration? Put explicitly, can universities in the South hope to become equal players with their Northern counterparts in terms of producing and disseminating new knowledge on this platform?

Among the more widely discussed frameworks for international academic/educational relations and worldwide educational inequalities have been theories such as world system theory, neo-colonialism and dependency. If neo-colonialism is no longer relevant with the end of the Cold War, the world system and dependency theories seem still to have explanatory power.

The world systems approach sees the globe as integrated with two major zones. The centre zone is constituted by larger, wealthier regions and countries, which dominate nations in the periphery zone. In the sphere of higher education, the powerful academic systems of the 'centres' have always dominated the production and distribution of knowledge. Academic institutions in the periphery zone of developing and newly industrialising nations depend on the 'centres' for research, the communication of knowledge and advanced training.

Experience of the last three decades, and more recent events, have raised serious questions about the adequacy of some of the center-periphery paradigm. The impressive economic development in some Asian countries shows that socio-economic development is not impossible in the periphery. These benefits have in turn led to increased levels of investment in schooling and training, for example the programme to create centres of excellence in higher education - world-class universities - in China, Japan and Korea. In contrast, there is now ample evidence of educational problems in core countries such as the US and the UK and efforts by states to try to reform these systems.

At the extreme point, the centre-periphery approach is viewed as problematic, or even exhausted as an analytical tool. But on most other occasions it argued that, while the centre-periphery framework is still viable, fundamental changes (notably economic) that are already occurring in the context within which universities operate will pose challenges to the framework. These changes in the international environment render the centre-periphery framework less useful than in the past. The centre-periphery approach needs to be better able to account for the complex ways in which relationships are being altered under conditions of globalisation. These claims, however, all suffer a lack of empirical evidence.

Universities from the Global South are increasingly instrumental in the creation and function of international university consortia, both as a way to draw Western institutional interest in emerging economies as well as a way for these universities to meet the pressures of local and national actors to play a larger role in regional economic growth.

However, there is very little research that attempts to prove, qualitatively or quantitatively, what Global South universities gain from membership of international consortia. Nor is there any critical analysis of global discourse that influences the decisions of universities to join them in the first place. In this sense, the international university consortium seems to provide a research topic that could provide some evidence of whether or not a global shift in the centre-periphery equation is on the way.

* Qiang Zha is an assistant professor of international education in the faculty of education at York University.

* The article "International University Consortium: What can global South universities gain from it?" was recently published by Academic Matters , the journal of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. It is republished with permission from the authors and the journal.