An international learning and engagement programme

What inspires leaders from two universities located tens of thousands of kilometres apart across the Pacific Ocean to build a strong and enduring partnership focusing on internationalising the student experience?

Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) are both universities with significant non-traditional student numbers. Each is dedicated to building excellence and accessibility in their education and research activities to serve the needs of 21st century students.

Some may say that the two universities are part of different systems with different funding arrangements and different political contexts and even different student profiles.

Victoria University is a multi-sector university with more than 58,000 students participating in school education, technical and further education and higher education while UTEP, with its 22,000 students, is an emerging research university with bachelor, masters and doctoral programmes and a strong regional focus.

Over the past five years, the relationship has developed and enough common ground has been identified for the two institutions to benefit from the exchange of ideas and programmes and to build collective knowledge to benefit students and staff.

In the initial stages of the partnership, programmes that would benefit each organisation were planned and implemented.

The three pillars of the partnership – global learning community, student employment and exchange, and library exchange – received an honourable mention in the category of international partnerships in the International Institute of Education’s recent 11th Andrew Heiskell awards for innovation in international education.

Three pillars

In the global learning community, students from UTEP in their freshmen-level seminar classes known as University Studies 1301 and Victoria University liberal arts students study joint subjects via video conferencing, teleconferencing and social media.

This programme has been conducted since 2007 and has attracted much international attention in terms of providing hundreds of students with an international learning experience that is culturally rich and stimulating and does not necessitate international travel.

During 2011 the programme was selected as one of the 22 national universities in the US to participate in the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Institute for Globally Networked Learning in the Humanities.

The student employment and exchange programme enables UTEP and Victoria University students to trade places for a semester of study and work.

Since 2010, 16 students have participated and each university has benefited from learning from the students as they work and learn in another cultural context. The students have had an affordable international study experience through paid work on campus.

Library exchange has been a strong component of the programme since 2008 and has influenced thinking around libraries as interactive learning spaces at each university. Sharing of resources and system understanding has enhanced the operation of the two libraries over this period.

A growing partnership

As the relationship has matured the activities have been broadened, and all have a focus on internationalising the student experience in teaching, learning and research. In addition to the three areas outlined above, the 2011 activities included:
  • • The electronic publishing of a high-end creative magazine by creative-writing students from the two universities.
  • • Teaching of an international accounting programme using technology where Victoria University holds the accreditation and delivers to UTEP students.
  • • Continuation of health research seminars with postgraduate students presenting findings of their research to peers.
  • • Investigation of methods of accelerating pathway progress of Victorian students from school through to university based on the US Early College High School and Advancement via Individual Determination models.
  • • Collaborative desalination research facilitated by a US Fulbright Specialist grant to support a UTEP researcher to visit Victoria University for a month in 2012 to conduct cooperative research.
  • • One-week delegation to Victoria University by UTEP leaders in August with a focus on reporting on developments in the programme areas and building on the face-to-face meetings by linking UTEP students and staff into the sessions by video conference.
Throughout the past five years the senior leadership of each university has encouraged students and staff to participate in areas of collaborative interest. The driving principles are that there is mutual benefit, that knowledge exchange and growth will enhance the operations of each university and that the students will have an enhanced international experience.

The funding to underpin this partnership has been kept to a minimum largely through the innovative use of technology – video conferencing, teleconferencing and social networking.

Recognition by the Institute of International Education for innovation and success in this international partnership encourages each university to continue to strive for excellence and achievement to benefit students and staff and add to the collective knowledge of the sector.

* Susan Young is executive dean of Victoria University College and Dr Stephen Riter is vice president for information resources and planning at the University of Texas at El Paso.