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The Value of University Networks

by Peter Mathieson
Principal University of Edinburgh, Honorary President of the Rectors’ Advisory Group

I have personal experience of university networks in UK, Europe and Asia, with the lattermost coming when I worked as President of the University of Hong Kong where our networks included Mainland China, Taiwan, Macau, Japan, Thailand, Australasia and west coast United States. I am a member of the Executive Committee of “Universitas 21”, an alliance of research-intensive universities and now also a board member of the Russell Group in the UK and the outgoing honorary President of the Rectors’ Advisory Group of the Coimbra Group. I am firmly convinced that university networks bring added value at several levels: collective might for lobbying purposes and policy development which will be of interest to governments, funding agencies, non-governmental organisations, charities, media and the general public; institutional linkages for our universities themselves; connections for our staff, students, alumni and friends; personal camaraderie, advice and friendship for me and other university leaders like me. Leading a university often feels a lonely job: I have made lasting alliances and friendships with other university leaders through my work with university networks. These provide me with a peer group that can provide advice, support, mentorship and sometimes a role as a “critical friend” which can be difficult to find within one’s own university. This has made me better at my job: value indeed for my employer.

University networks should not underestimate their collective influence: a particularly striking example of this has been apparent recently in the solidarity shown by continental European universities towards their British counterparts in articulating the risks of Brexit and the ways in which those risks might be mitigated. I have been enormously gratified to see the strength of support emanating from the Coimbra Group, together with LERU, UNICA and others. Instead of taking the selfish (but potentially understandable) attitude that there would be more of the funding “cake” for them if British universities were excluded, our colleagues in continental Europe have been vocal in articulating the value that they see coming from collaborative work with us in the UK. We must maintain this and ensure that our respective governments hear a consistent, joined-up and evidence-based message.

I would like to see university alliances making policies, taking public positions, joining together in social media and other communications activities. Universities have vital roles to play all over the world in creating new knowledge with their research; transmitting and interpreting knowledge in their teaching; creating wealth and jobs with their innovation and technical transfer activities; working for societal benefit not only to our students and staff but also to those members of society that are not directly part of our university communities. Whilst member universities may be heterogeneous in terms of their size, institutional profiles, local context, funding mechanisms etc, I am often struck by the extent to which our challenges are similar and overlapping. We must harness our similarities of vision, values and capability to ensure that we all maximise our potential. There is more that unites us than there is that divides us.