International partnerships can still be a success

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Photograph: Sam Smallridge

The news on the recent failings at Lancaster Universities partners in India, Pakistan and Malaysia paints a dreary picture. There appears to be serious shortcomings at these universities and they need to be rooted out at the nearest possible opportunity. In this paper over the last year we have had a number of articles criticising the partner unis, and justifiably so. Excuses won’t solve the problems that the universities have had in their infancy and clearly there needs to be a long rethink and a change of strategy when it comes to preventing these problems in the future. However following the controversies that Lancaster universities partners have become embroiled in I don’t think we should automatically reach the conclusion that foreign university partnerships are by definition a bad thing. In fact in many ways I feel they can and will eventually turn out to be a force for good and rather than be used exclusively to make money or bolster the universities reputation they  will leave an even greater legacy wherever they are.

I can’t even begin to fathom the difficulty of setting up a new university, let alone in a foreign country, where in some cases the precedent for higher education is limited. And not wishing to downplay the accusations of failed teaching and less than rigorous examinations, I do wonder, perhaps optimistically, whether they amount to teething problems’? Deplorable all the same but perhaps this is something we should understand comes with the complications of setting up a new university in a new country. The likelihood of things running smoothly was pretty slim to begin with and to many the possibility of some level of teaching problems may have been already foreseen. These problems should be sorted immediately, it goes without saying, but Lancaster has laid a platform for a university in India and others across the world that can be built on and help make positive change in developing countries. To detach itself from these campuses would be shirking responsibility and missing an opportunity to make a real difference.

I may be speaking from a biased point of view, I’ve been to Goenka, I spent three weeks there with about 40 other students from Lancaster and, even though I’m not a particularly hyperbolic person, I’d say it was one of the best times of my life. This is an opportunity available each year because of Lancaster’s partnerships and it’s becoming phenomenally successful, expanding to more countries and taking increasing numbers of students. The trip gave me a perspective there which may be harder to comprehend if you haven’t been there and seen it for yourself.

Goenka had dozens of volunteer placements and we all had days teaching at schools in the slums or specialised establishments for disabled students. Working with those kids and the students from Goenka showed that there is a real social conscience in the university and it is that which Lancaster must build on to make sure that the foreign partnerships succeed to their full potential.  Practices like that can be expanded further. Goenka, and the other partner institutions, don’t just need to offer volunteer help but they could expand to recruit children from these schools and offer a higher education which would seem almost incomprehensible to those who have grown up victim to extensive poverty. High Schools don’t have to be the limit when it comes to giving people from deprived backgrounds opportunities and they shouldn’t be. The basis of something special is there to build on and it could truly help the society as well as educating students. A recruitment strategy aimed at underprivileged students may be a sensible way of helping, at least partially, the inequality prevalent in some of the countries where the Lancaster name resides. Equally further encouragement of the good work done in the volunteering sector, which could even resemble the thriving volunteer work done by Lancaster students, would certainly be something to be proud of.

If this were to happen then the university partnerships would prove to be a fantastic idea. The teaching is hugely important but the good work by the foreign universities outside the lecture theatres in underprivileged classrooms, I feel, shows that Lancaster are in it for more than money or an improved league table rating. The only way to prove this is to continue and expand the volunteering and charity work. If this happens then they’ll achieve something far greater than breaking into the World Top 100.