Image of two people shaking hands
UK-Russia collaboration in higher education. Photo ©

British Council.

December 2019

The British Council recently helped coordinate a tour of vice-chancellors from British universities to Russia. Shearer West, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham University who was on the tour, gives her personal views on what UK universities mean today.

Last month the British Council led a delegation of British university vice chancellors, leaders and scientists to Russia to explore deepening UK-Russia collaboration in research, science and higher education. Delegates discussed plans to expand joint research, increase student mobility between Russia and the UK, grow the transnational education market, and create opportunities for early career researchers.

Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council, who led the delegation, said: “We very much welcome the opportunity to discuss the importance of increased mobility, joint research and partnerships between UK and Russian universities, and we look forward to a return visit to London by Russian Rectors in the summer of 2020.”

The visit included the first Russia-UK Rectors’ Forum, hosted by the Russian Rectors’ Union in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, where a Memorandum of Understanding on collaboration was signed by the Russian Rectors’ Union and Universities UK International. A return visit to the UK will go ahead in June 2020, to coincide with the British Council’s annual Going Global conference. 

Shearer West, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham University, who was on the tour, gave the following speech in St Petersburg about what universities in Britain mean today:

“Universities have been around for 1000 years. Although we are felt to be conservative institutions, resistant to change, we have adapted to everything thrown at us over that millennium. On the one hand, we should be proud of that. We are resilient; society needs us; we respond to those needs.

I heard a talk a couple of years ago by a Vice-Chancellor of one the world’s leading universities, where he claimed that universities were on the cusp of becoming obsolete, like the monasteries under Henry VIII. This is a familiar narrative of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—that somehow technology will eradicate face-to-face education the way it has made obsolete the newspapers that you fold and disks you stick into machines to play music.

I could unpick this argument in a myriad of ways, but even if we use just the simplest of data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it is clear that the demand from students for tertiary education is booming throughout the world. There is still a fairly steady demand for traditional campus degree programmes, and a rapidly growing demand for more diverse forms of higher education, whether lifelong learning, executive education or online and blended learning. The world of work is changing, and tertiary education must change with it. In some OECD countries, up to 75% of 18-25 year olds are accessing tertiary education. So the narrative of doom does not really align with the evidence.

And this doesn’t even take into account the importance of universities for research, where we drive discovery and innovation, and we have become the R&D partner of choice for industry, policymakers and cultural organisations. We are cheaper and better than any other type of institution at doing research, including private industries that increasingly rely on us for innovation.

Our ability to adapt has—in some ways—put us into the same category as the platypus—a unique Australian animal that has survived centuries against the odds, despite (or perhaps because of) its bizarre melange of traits: egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver tailed. A really weird creature. Universities are as much of an oddity as that tenacious duck-billed platypus, with our multiple missions. 

On the other hand, our ability to adapt has—in some ways—put us into the same category as the platypus—a unique Australian animal that has survived centuries against the odds, despite (or perhaps because of) its bizarre melange of traits: egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver tailed. A really weird creature. Universities are as much of an oddity as that tenacious duck-billed platypus, with our multiple missions. 

British Council chief executive Sir Ciaran Devane at first Russia-UK university rectors forum 12 November 2019
British Council chief executive Sir Ciaran Devane at first Russia-UK university rectors forum 12 November 2019. Photo ©

Alexander Lubarskiy

There are many paradoxes and challenges in the current make-up of universities: 

We are both public sector and private sector, educationalists and researchers 

We are global organisations in an increasingly post-global and inwardly focused world. 

We have more students than ever before, but suddenly students are not just students but ‘voters’ or ‘customers’ who are of special interest to political parties of all colours.

We have more students than ever before, but suddenly students are not just students but ‘voters’ or ‘customers’ who are of special interest to political parties of all colours. 

We aspire to interdisciplinarity to solve global challenges, but our internal structures are still tied strongly to traditional disciplines.

And last, but not least, we are on the one hand public service organisations with a strong community feel and on the other highly complex multi-million pound businesses—the third or fourth largest export industry in many countries. 

So where do we go from here? We are getting swept up in various political ideologies. We are in danger of becoming bastions of post-truth and fake news and the censorship of free speech and broad debate, rather than harbingers of analytical thinking.

I can only speak for the UK, but at a time when the world needs a convenor of open debate, there is a danger that we have turne1d inward, nervous of discussing sensitive issues, mired in culture wars between different interest groups. And this is one area where I feel we are failing in the difference we could make to a society that is divided and in many ways broken.

So in the future we could go in one of two directions. We could end up making ourselves extinct by allowing the poison in our ecosystem to fester and destroy us. Or we could recognise our unique and essential role in a society that doesn’t know where it is going—one that needs experts, convenors of debate, pragmatists, problem solvers, idealists and people who are stronger together than they are apart.” 

Shearer West, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham University

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