Why outward-looking HE programmes should be for all

Few faculty members or universities can ever simulate what happens in real life in real time in the classroom or laboratory. This is true for any discipline in higher education, and more true for areas of the social sciences and humanities; for would-be scientists too, real life exposure in real time helps them to develop all-important life skills.

For this reason, academic programmes that venture beyond the classroom are gaining ground. Back in the 1980s and the 1990s, in countries like India, the best institutions offered something like internships or summer training in at least some professional degrees to give students a bit of an understanding of the world of work outside academia.

Today, some of those internships have been strengthened, but we also see a plethora of other outward-looking, university-led programmes springing up, be they exchange programmes or twinning programmes leading to a joint degree issued by universities from different countries on different continents. In addition, there has been a rising trend in student migration, with students moving country to pursue higher education.

The rise of globalisation over the last three decades has also led to an increasing demand and appreciation for employees who have a global outlook, although in recent years, we have been seeing a counter-trend of protectionism, as witnessed by the Brexit vote, with a subsequent impact on students taking part in outward enrichment initiatives.

Stages of growth

Richard Nolan’s stages of growth model, developed in the 1970s, has been researched in almost all academic disciplines. Since then the model has been extended, with key stages being identified. First is the initial stage, where ideas are generated and experimented upon. To put it in the words of the first leader and founding father of China, Mao Zedong: "Let a hundred flowers blossom."

Next comes the stage of centralisation where ideas are implemented as a standardised process across the organisation or the sector. Then comes a more inward-looking phase, where the organisation or the sector asks: 'what can we offer our stakeholders or customers?' This is done by analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation.

And finally, in the last and fourth stage, the organisation and the sector ask what the different groups of customers or stakeholders expect from it on a global basis and focus on how they can develop the critical resources to achieve this.

At this stage, the organisation, rather than dumping its products or services on the market (the so-called ‘push’ strategy) – expecting that there should be a natural demand for them (what we will call the inward-looking view) – starts focusing on producing goods and services which the market demands and moves to a so-called ‘pull’ strategy aimed at meeting that demand.

This model explains why most higher education institutions, whether they are aiming for world-class status or not, have been arduously and actively following some sort of outward-looking programmes. This can take the form of anything from short-duration industry visits to internships and exchange programmes – some of which may not offer much beyond what any tourism package does.

Although one cannot and must not reduce academic exchange programmes to tourism packages, there are some benefits to them even if that is all they offer. They show what real life in real time in a different culture and country is like, unfiltered and unexplained by any faculty member or university. Students are left to themselves to define the takeaways they get from such exchange programmes.

It is important to note that with the expansion of higher education, many students in classrooms across the world may not have the experience of significant international exposure and fewer still will have taken part actively in exchange trips.

But when a university offers outward-focused programmes, it opens up students’ options and many students might never get such opportunities or exposure if universities didn't push them.

There are other obvious benefits too, such as access to improved faculty quality, physical infrastructure and research quality, which may not be available in institutions where resources are constrained.

Students studying in poorly resourced institutions therefore have the most to gain from meaningful and even not so meaningful outward-oriented programmes. Yes, they cost money and the investment of time may vary according to the institution, but the real takeaways and returns will be higher due to the deficits at the home institution.

Exploiting the internet

Under the ‘higher education for all’ mantra, we have seen a larger and larger variation in the quality of higher education institutions. Thankfully, however, there are two resources that are free and available to all irrespective of the location and the quality of the university. One is the internet and the World Wide Web; the other is the world itself.

It is time we used these two unlimited learning resources as much as possible to improve the quality of education from secondary to higher education so that we can overcome the problems of limited resources where such deficits become a critical barrier to building quality higher education.

The best institutions globally have been early adopters of an outward focus. It is time the rest joined them and made the benefits of an outward-looking focus accessible and affordable to a wider number of students around the world.

Professor Ranjit Goswami is the vice-chancellor of RK University, India. Students of RK University had their first overseas exchange programme this year and more are in the pipeline.