What defines a global ‘superpower’? In the past, it was the size of national armies or possession of nuclear weapons. But now there is a more important (and peaceful) benchmark: the size and prestige of university systems. And, while the US is still the global higher education ‘superpower’, China will soon be knocking it off top spot if current trends continue.

…a dramatic insight into just how rapidly China is moving in the higher education race… anything anyone in the West can easily imagine… a wake-up call to universities and governments around the world…The UK is in danger of slipping back…

So states a report of BBC news, with the alarming title China’s bid for world domination. A bit over the top if you ask me. The rise of India and China as doom scenarios for the future competitiveness of developed nations: an image frequently used by current university leaders to appeal to their national governments and ask for additional funding. And by the media to spice up a story.

WUN_membersThat being said… the BBC report is based on presentations of a recent conference of the Worldwide Universities Network, a partnership of 17 research-led universities from Europe, North America, China and Australia. In my view, it’s one of the most active networks of its kind, with many activities in the field of research cooperation, research mobility, e-learning and the organisation of virtual seminars and many other events.

Also in the field of higher education there has been quite some cooperation. There have been initiatives like ‘Constructing Knowledge Spaces’, concerned with researching and theorising the globalisation of education, the ‘Ideas & Universities‘ project and the ‘Network Horizons Virtual Seminar Series‘ of 2006. Cooperation between Wisconsin and Bristol has even led to a new addition to the higher education blogosphere.


And recently, in London, there were meetings for the project ‘Realizing the Global University‘, which is aiming to:

… provoke and inform a discussion that will provide institutional leaders, policy makers and others across the higher education sector with the opportunity to develop tools, establish best practice and benchmarking standards, and create a structured and sustained dialogue to support effective action.

The meetings consisted of a ‘critical perspectives’ workshop at the 14th of November and a conference on the following day. At the conference most of the presentations came from Vice Chancellors and other university leaders, while the workshop presentations were mainly from researchers in the field. The most interesting papers were obviously presented at the workshop.

WUNI wasn’t at the workshop myself but had a quick look at the papers. They discuss a wide range of issues related to the internationalisation of universities and the changing global landscape to which they are adapting. They address topics such as the relation between the local and global roles of universities, the changing nature of the purposes of higher education, the role of Chinese diaspora in the global knowledge network and of course the construction of the so-called ‘world class university’. Papers can be downloaded here. The workshop also set up a blog where the papers can be discussed.

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