The Association of Commonwealth Universities at 100

This is a special year for the Association of Commonwealth Universities, or ACU. It is 100 years old. There is much to celebrate and much on which to reflect.

The association is the world’s first (and therefore oldest) international university network, established in 1913. When one considers the number of university networks in today’s world, even within one country, it is astonishing that there were none 100 years ago.

It now seems self-evident that universities should have common interests, grapple with many of the same problems and learn from each other. They draw on common traditions (despite local differences), share mostly the same values and draw on some of the same resources.

Many university staff have studied at universities in the Commonwealth, and many – including vice-chancellors – have been recipients of Commonwealth scholarships. A considerable number of current staff further their careers by participating in ACU networks where best practice, knowledge and experience are shared.

Certainly the services the association offers have expanded over the years and the latest ACU Bulletin gives a glimpse of the range: partnership and networking opportunities; management, leadership and advisory services (which include the strategic management programme and the ACU Policy Index); research and analysis on institutional trends and policies; staff and student mobility programmes; research management; the Gender Programme; consulting services and more.

The ACU provides the secretariat for the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission and also administers the Chevening and Marshall scholarships. With all this on offer it is little wonder that universities from all countries of the Commonwealth continue to fund the organisation.

Celebrating 100 years

In 1912, 53 universities attended a congress in London that led to the establishment of the ACU the following year. Six came from Asia. Asia now represents 51% of the membership, which includes more than 550 universities. Only one of the original members came from Africa. Africa now represents over 20% of membership.

The association is stronger than ever before. It seems that the things that we share are more important than the differences between us.

What we share was much in evidence in events held across the Commonwealth to celebrate the centenary – including the final conference in London in October. These were no pious memorials. The structure and content of the London conference and other activities focused firmly on the future.

We know that universities have undergone more change in the 100 years of the ACU’s existence than in the previous 1,000 (and more) years in the history of universities. However, change has been at what one might call ‘a stately pace’. Witness universities’ interest or willingness to engage in gender issues!

The pace has accelerated, and there is nothing stately about the accelerating pace and nature of the changes still in store.

The conference programme was themed “Future Forward: Taking charge of change”. The presentations are to be made available on the ACU website.

One’s confidence in universities’ willingness and ability to grapple with the enormity of challenges facing humanity in the 21st century was somewhat diminished by the final item on the programme. This took the form of debate with the proposition being: “This House believes that society expects too much from universities."

As speakers and participants from all over the Commonwealth vigorously debated for and against, it became apparent that, while universities certainly hold dear many common values and aspirations, local differences make a big difference.

It was a lively debate, and a sobering one. It reinforced the need for the very opportunities the ACU provides: mutual support and understanding, and collaborative learning.

It was disconcerting to hear vice-chancellors’ assertions that universities were the best equipped institutions to provide solutions to the world’s manifest problems. Given their unwillingness (with some notable exceptions) to focus students on some of the great issues of our time, one would have thought more humility was in order.

Needless to say, the House did not support the proposition made. Universities think it right that societies have high expectations of them and one should be cheered by that confidence. In important ways they are unique institutions.

Whether society as a whole believes that is another matter. While parents still aspire to their children having a university education, there is some comfort – but the alarming increase in fees being experienced to a greater or lesser degree across the world and the concomitant student debt increases will certainly lead to some re-evaluation.

Power shifts

Members of the reading public will find a lot to engage them in the book launched at the conference, Universities for a New World: Making a global network in international higher education, 1913-2013. It was commissioned by the ACU as another way to mark the centenary.

Edited by Deryck Schreuder and written by a diverse range of people from across the Commonwealth and its various institutions as well as other actors in the world of higher education, it is focused on the exceptional changes in the power, role and impact of universities across the modern world since the inception of the ACU.

So, as Schreuder writes, while the “social sample is Commonwealth, the commentary is necessarily global”. The book provides an excellent range of perspectives.

I believe that this decade will be a unique period in the history of higher education. In his chapter entitled “Looking Forward”, Colin Lucas, former vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, imagines a scale of change and “if one were to draw a sliding scale from little change on the left to dissolution on the right, one would say that the left end represented complacent folly and the right end is imaginable only by the deepest pessimist.

“Quite where on the scale we shall rest, and when, is unpredictable in detail.”

Universities like to say that they are among the oldest forms of collective to survive and they do so because they are adaptable. To quote Lucas again: “That adaptability will be seriously tested in the coming century.”

As for history – and how the next centenary of ACU will be marked – universities will be judged on what they achieve. Given the expectations of them and the pace of change required to meet these expectations, they would be well advised to “take charge” as the conference programme suggests.

If they don’t, someone else surely will!

* Professor Brenda Gourley was vice-chancellor and CEO of The Open University in the United Kingdom from 2002 to 2009. Before that she occupied the same position at one of South Africa’s largest universities, the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). She holds and has held a range of positions on boards and trusts, serving two terms of office as chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities and two terms of office on the board of the International Association of Universities, as well as many others in various parts of the world – both in the public and private sectors. She is currently a higher education consultant and is non-executive director on various boards and trusts in the higher education and related domains.