Local and Global?

Kim Ansell considers international ambition and civic engagement examining how you can do both and how they can complement each other.

For me it is all about strategy and not the rhetoric of growth/income without knowing why.

  • China’s Generation Y is 250-million strong – a quarter of Chinese A-level students could not find a domestic university place last year.
  • There are now about 8,000+ courses taught in English by universities in non-English speaking countries.
  • The education and skills sector in the GCC (in the Arab Gulf states) is expected to see investment of $150 billion over the next few years due to population growth.
  • The British Council is offering grants of £100-£100,000, for capacity building and community engagement programmes e.g., academic exchange, round tables, online platforms, community dialogue.

Given these statistics the rationale for international development is clearly understood, but many have found the risks are high. Universities with limited resource and global ambitions have found themselves engaged in unproductive, uneconomic or diversionary international initiatives.

Current plans for UK universities suggests a growth in student numbers of well over 10%, yet policy specialists forecast a plateau in numbers so there appears to be a disconnect.

Plans will and must change as your institution gains knowledge and experience, but the commitment and alignment of staff and governance behind the engagement strategy must always be clear and consistent. Along with emerging opportunities there are also sudden upheavals. The biggest impact on strategy is typically outside of your control and presents opportunities to stress test your strategic plan – BrexHEit, the forthcoming general election, the Higher Education Research Bill, REF, TEF and the Europe wide issue, ‘integration of refugees into higher education’.

In such challenging times, the local v international question has never been so important. In particular, the relationship between an international [ised] university and its ‘place’ has become a focal point for the sector.

Cardiff Business School addressed the current refugee crisis head on, not to tick boxes, not because they had to ‘be seen to be doing something’, but because “civic engagement adds value to successful delivery of your strategic ambition” explained Professor Martin Kitchener, a dean at Cardiff Business School.

Professor Kitchener continues, “We recently led a project, through our Responsible Innovation Network, helping Syrian refugees integrate into life in Wales and create opportunities to build their prospects. The project sees undergraduates, supported by Enactus UK, working with asylum seekers and refugees on issues of personal development and advancing social enterprise ideas. Many of the refugees were also enrolled on a ‘Pathway to a Profession’ course in partnership with the Welsh Refugee Council, and some now have the opportunity to study for an MSc in Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship with us.”

Through their distinctive public value strategy which has an interdisciplinary and international ethos, Cardiff Business School students develop the characteristics of ethical, thoughtful leaders equipped with the skills to promote economic and social improvements.

David Morris’s recent WONKHE article , a review of  David Goodhart’s  The Road to Somewhere he highlights the contrasting experiences, expectations and voting patterns of those mobilised by a higher education, and those who have not accessed higher education. While cautioning against “strategically” being “in two places at once”, we are encouraged to think of internationalism and local engagement as mutually compatible endeavours.

One can question whether protection of market position over community outreach determines natural priorities but it is clear that lack of integration between internationalism and local engagement is likely to result in confusion of messaging and more importantly, failure to achieve strategic impact and success.

Arguably, collaborative leadership across a range of organisations/institutions in local places has never been more important and increasingly requires local institutions to work more closely together. Operationalising these partnerships is not sufficient unless there is a clear understanding at a strategic level of the background to the drivers and why these are critical to success.

Leading Places

The Leadership Foundation has been actively involved in developing for higher education the Hefce-funded ‘Leading Places’ programme to help drive growth, re-design public services and strengthen collaboration. Built on our researchCivic Leadership and Higher Education – Where are we now?.   The key challenges emerging from the process of collaborative working from this initiative were:

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There are some great examples of local collaboration in this project, but the real test will be whether the momentum is sustained and if they deliver on strategic objectives.

Local or global?

While I agree whole heartedly with David Morris’s belief that “The urgency of now is to recapture a civic mission”, I am not convinced of his assertion that “To choose confident and unashamed internationalism as a top priority is to choose to move civic engagement down the same priorities list”.

Institutions benefit where the strategic objective is supported by an integrated and values-based strategic plan which brings local and global together and speaks to the culture and personality of the organisation. There are many initiatives to stimulate such integration, universities are internationalising their curriculum by introducing cultural, civic and global perspectives into programmes and Fiona Ross, our director of research, has raised the issue of assessing community impact in the REF. This not only addresses how civic engagement and volunteering could demonstrate impact on a local level, but also shows how it could be valued by the ‘system’ without making it regulatory or compulsory.

So do you have to choose between local and global? Some are being a little bolder and doing both. Kings College London’s recent strategic vision certainly claims to be both – “Connecting the local to the global,  … and by 2029… King’s will be regarded throughout the world as London’s leading civic university.”

Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of University of Bedfordshire, is ambitious in his claim that civic engagement should be in our character not in our regulatory architecture. Professor William Whyte, vice-president, St Johns College, Oxford is equally bold and claims that a local ‘only’ university is not a university at all.

So if we accept that there is always a local vs. universal tension inherent in higher education how do we best leverage it to ensure that universities can do both? I’d suggest starting with some reflective questioning of your institution’s international and civic/local strategies:

  1. Is international growth essential to your organisations long term sustainability?
  2. How would international growth add value to your strategic ambition?
  3. Can you fund international investment whilst maintaining existing levels of service and value?
  4. How long can you wait for a return on investment and what form do we want it to take?
  5. Does your staff  or team have capacity and capability?
  6. Are your governance and staff ambitions aligned?
  7. How can international growth complement civic/local engagement?
  8. How well will our community and our student population interact? 

There are no right answers, but once you can articulate your own response to questions like these, you can start to think more holistically about your strategic plan and integrate your global and local initiatives. A few ‘buzz’ words might provide part of the answer – ‘joined up’, ‘integrated thinking’, ‘integrated reporting’ ‘strategic planning’, ‘collaboration’, ‘matrix management’ ‘value-based management’

The extent to which there might be an international ambition or the scope to use the international agenda to support public engagement is the tip of the iceberg. We propose a deeper more strategic approach to the interplay between local and global success. The ethical values espoused by institutions must be one of the starting points along with analysis of your strategic intentions and some deep soul searching through the sorts of questions outlined in this blog post.


For more on Knowing Our Place, go to leadership development programme ‘Knowing Our Place? – Strategic Leadership of Local Partnerships’. As this development programme aims to build on the learning from ‘Leading Places’ and address the strategy of civic engagement.

Kim Ansell is managing consultant in the Consultancy division of the Leadership Foundation.  www.lfhe.ac.uk/consultancy