Sky’s the limit for flat earthers?

Founded in 2004 the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education offers support and advice on leadership, governance and management to the UK higher education sector. In a keynote speech to its 2011 conference, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University since 1 October 2009, stressed the importance of internationalisation for UK and US universities. We face, as Martin Bean, put it, a ‘flat world with no boundaries’ but making successful links requires that ‘senior people in your governance body’ support expansion and that the choice of areas of activity and partners is determined by the university’s values and culture.

Martin Bean’s advice may well be derived his own experience of international educational ventures. He was President of AIESEC International, (Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales) in 1986-7. This international, not-for-profit organisation run by students and recent graduates was described by Kofi Anan as

an agent of positive change through education and cultural exchange to develop a broader understanding of cultural, socio-economic and business management issues.

In addition, Martin Bean may have built on an understanding of the history of the OU. International interest in the OU was intense from the start and there has been some valuable analysis of its place within the wider world. For example a report was prepared for the Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Ontario (Neil McLean, A study of the utilization of electronic technology in post-secondary education in Britain and West Germany. Prepared for the Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Ontario  Queen’s Printer, W. Kinmond, Toronto, 1972). This compared the OU to the Telekolleg and Funkkollege. There was also interest in its economic efficiency. A report on the OU for Canadian universities made in 1970 found that while the initial costs were high, the enhanced use of television by Canadian universities was recommended (see Bernard Trotter, Television and Technology in University Teaching. A Report to the Committee on University Affairs, and the Committee of Presidents of Universities of Ontario, Information Branch of the Department of University Affairs, 481 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1970).

The OU also engaged with other countries. It worked both independently and through the Concordat with the British Council. A consultancy service was established in 1974 and, then, because it was felt that there was a need for the OU to respond effectively and efficiency to requests for assistance, it ran the Centre for International Co-operation and Services 1977-79. The OUCICS developed contacts with external agencies, institutions and individuals concerned with distance education which has long experience of working with universities in many countries. This department transmited information about the OU to other countries and leases consultants. Countries purchasing the English OU model included Columbia, India, Kenya, China and Tanzania. The OU helped establish universities in Pakistan, for Arabs and it has worked closely with universities in the USA.

The image is not of the LFHE but of Martin Bean’s avatar addressing a meeting in Second Life. Expansion to new worlds, virtual or otherwise, is mostly likely to succeed when there is a  clear understanding of the history and the culture of the OU.

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