Imagine a world where students travel across the globe to share ideas and develop a vision for the future, joining together as a powerful network for positive change. Could this ever be possible?
Ben Matthews, director of opportunities, Lancaster Unviersity Students’ Union
Governments around the world are increasingly encouraging their universities to embrace globalisation and to internationalise their institution. They are doing this by supporting and facilitating their higher education sectors to engage at an institutional level with global partners through teaching and research collaboration.
Lancaster University now has a number of partners in countries including India, China, Malaysia and Pakistan. The big question for us was “where did we, as the students’ union, fit into this?”
Lancaster University’s partnerships presented an exciting chance for the union to create new opportunities for our students. In 2010, we first piloted an exchange that provided exposure to government, business, community volunteering and academic research.
The project enables our members to build networks that change perspectives and help them to achieve the full benefits of their time at Lancaster. These experiences can provide personal development and employability benefits for students, and have huge positive potential by connecting future leaders around the world.
From small beginnings and with significant university support, this project has grown such that this summer, 85 students from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Palestine and China will be hosted by the union at Lancaster, while 115 Lancaster-based students will travel overseas.
All of the students taking part are studying for Lancaster undergraduate degrees or postgraduate qualifications. Our ambition is to increase participation, and the university has pledged to support us in this. We’ve learnt a lot as an organisation and the project has had its fair share of challenges which we’d like to share with you. These are just some of the learning and tips that we’ve picked up along the way.
1. Ask yourself the question: what are the international aspirations of your institution?
In many ways, international collaboration is nothing new. The UK higher education sector has a long track record of successful partnerships overseas. It’s important to understand your own institution’s aims.
Here at Lancaster, the institution’s network of partnerships with India, Malaysia, China and Pakistan are part of the global strategy. The partnerships seek to support the development of institutions overseas, helping to build the capacity of local higher education.
Over 2,000 students are currently studying Lancaster degree programmes developed and taught collaboratively by both Lancaster academic staff and staff from the local partner. LUSU’s aim is to unite all Lancaster students for their mutual benefit.
2. Establish opportunities that might exist within this for the union
University collaborations can take various different forms. They range from student and staff exchanges, dual and joint degree programmes and credit transfer, through to research collaborations.
It’s important to understand what your union can bring to the table and what you will gain in the process for your members. We’ve started by prioritising student interaction as a way to open a dialogue between Lancaster students around the world. Primarily this has taken the form of a three-week international exchange.
3. Think big but be realistic
Creating international opportunities for your union and its membership takes time and patience. We found that things don’t happen instantly, and effective communication is challenging. Even though our institution already has effective relationships, it was necessary to establish our own distinct role and credibility within this.
We identified our role as ensuring that students get the most out of these partnerships. We learnt that trying to replicate our representation models and existing union services overseas was high-risk and probably wouldn’t meet local needs. In many ways, students’ unions can learn a great deal from how things work elsewhere.
4. Keep student interests and passions at the centre
All of the opportunities are, as far as practically possible, open to all students. University funding has ensured that we can keep costs down to a minimum, and providing assisted places has ensured, as far as possible, fair access for all.
Students are at the heart of inspiring, developing and making things happen on the programme. We want them to connect with each other, employers and the world.
Student input in the creation of the project has resulted in the key programme features focusing on: a significant volunteering component, including working with young people; an academic component focusing on issues of global significance, such as poverty, climate change and corporate social responsibility; engagement with business leaders and government bodies; and a development of cultural awareness.
5. Be clear about your aims
As you scale activity, continually refresh, reinventing around hot topics and student interests. Our international partners provide a sustainable platform for exchange, and so long as they have the capacity, they will provide us with a base.
We look for opportunities to buy them into the programme wherever possible, for example our visiting students engaging with their pre-university students (like an international outreach).
At times we have had to remind ourselves that we’re not Thomas Cook and that we are not running bus tours for students. Replicating a ‘one size fits all’ opportunity year-on-year would miss the point – it’s not about everyone doing the same thing.
We’ve made a start on connecting our student body across the world and we’d like to link with other like-minded students’ unions to go some way towards creating a powerful global network of future leaders.
If you’d like to work together please drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org.