Can university consortia and networks adapt to new normal?

Nearly all aspects of higher education internationalisation have been disrupted by and then adapted to the realities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While news of the vaccine roll-out has many university administrators and policy-makers in planning mode for what comes next, it is necessary to think about, and perhaps radically re-imagine, the role and purposes of consortia and formal networks for the future.

This was the focus of my recent presentation at the annual conference of the Association of International Education Administrators or AIEA: Leaders in International Higher Education. The main thesis of that presentation and this article is that, while formal networks and consortia have been disrupted and face serious questions for future sustainability, informal networks will continue to proliferate, complicating efforts by the central administration of universities to guide the process.

This results in a higher need for strategic, dispassionate analyses of what these networks really contribute to the quality and internationalisation of universities, beyond aspirational statements and brand-building.

Analysing networks and legitimation processes

It is difficult to make claims about networks and consortia that apply widely because there is not a sense of equivalence among these groups of universities. A cursory analysis of formal networks and consortia results in a rough typology.

First are highly selective groups of research universities. These usually include a couple dozen universities, overwhelmingly from North America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, along with one or two institutions from the Global South. Universitas 21 and the Worldwide Universities Network illustrate these consortia.

Second, we find networks that have a particular purpose and their geographic and institutional type composition is usually more diverse. For instance, the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities and the Global University Network for Innovation include their main purposes in their names.

Third, we can find regional alliances, such as the newly created Tríada or Triad of Latin American Universities, which includes a single institution from Chile, Colombia and Mexico, each. Finally, there are consortia that combine two or more of these criteria. For example, the recent Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities combines an institutional mission with a research orientation.

While we can debate the very rough typology proposed above, I am particularly interested in the mechanisms for legitimation of these networks and consortia. Four of these legitimation processes seem to be in place: selectivity, representation, longevity and a self-reinforcing quality and internationalisation connection.

Selectivity is particularly observable in the first category of research universities. Excellence and exclusion constitute a commonsensical coupling and require little justification. Inclusion of outstanding universities from the Global South placates accusations of elitism and this constitutes the dominant approach to establishing and maintaining networks.

This creates an environment in which universities aspire to gain membership in networks beyond their league while snubbing networks that include their current peer institutions.

A second mechanism is the complete opposite of selectivity. Mission-specific consortia rely on wide regional and institutional-type representation to claim legitimacy. Rather than limiting their members, vast representation of countries and regions is presented as the main claim to legitimacy. The challenge in this legitimation strategy is that, with wide representation and diversity, the purpose or mission of the network runs the risk of getting diluted.

Longevity is a familiar legitimation strategy in higher education, as illustrated in the inclusion of foundation years in university crests and seals and the commemoration of landmark anniversaries, usually in increments of 25 years. Consortia that hit the 20- or 50-year mark accrue legitimacy.

Professor Amy Scott Metcalfe and I have written about the mutually reinforcing relationship between perceived internationalisation and quality among the members of the Association of American Universities.

The role of consortia for the new normal

The pandemic has resulted in the proliferation and diversification of networking activities, if not necessarily of networks. COVID-19 has triggered a pincer movement of institutional decentralisation on the academic front, resulting from working at home, along with endless possibilities for virtual international engagement. Paradoxically, nearly all other aspects of institutional decision-making have been further centralised.

In addition, global hyperconnectivity and the webinarisation of academic life are now evident. In this context, strategic vision is more pressing than ever before, but also more difficult to attain.

Despite advanced mechanisms to surveil faculty activities, epitomised by annual reports of activities and portfolios for evaluation and promotion, no institution has sufficient resources to monitor the activities of all faculty members. Instead, universities would benefit from clearly messaging their institutional priorities for international engagement and their main targets for networking and collaboration.

Without these clear signals, faculty members will respond in a haphazard way, possibly in a first come, first served fashion, which might be acceptable individually, but will not contribute to the organisational goals. This also might create a false sense of equivalence among potential new partnerships to be established.

In this new context, high-cost selective networks, akin to country clubs, will struggle to demonstrate value added at a time of current, and likely protracted, austerity. Moreover, regionalisation will likely accelerate as international mobility resumes one bubble at a time, and to the extent that the highly unequal (among countries) process of vaccine distribution continues to unfold.

Therefore, as planning for reigniting international student recruitment and education abroad programmes continues, important thought needs to be given to the future of participation in university consortia and other networks.

Gerardo L Blanco is associate professor and academic director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. E-mail: