Globalisation can be good

A worldwide exchange of information could be a big asset to education, says Grace McCann
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Not everyone is keen on globalisation. Some see its effects as dangerous. But for Dr David Pilsbury, chief executive of the World Universities Network, it offers huge potential for university research, and in this respect should be encouraged.

This week he announced that 50 young researchers, PhD students and post-doctoral workers from the United Kingdom and the United States are crossing the Atlantic in the network's first exchange programme. The idea is to focus on fast-growing, globally important areas of research that depend on collaboration between disciplines and institutions.

Climatology, bioinformatics (the study of the data produced by biologists) and nanotechnology (the study of atomic-scale and molecular-scale devices) are priority areas. "We can reach a critical mass from pooling resources on a global basis," David Pilsbury says. "For example, in bioinformatics, there are currently not enough people in Britain who have the right skills to make sense of the enormous amounts of information pouring out of genomic research."

The network has 11 members in the UK and the US – six over here: Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and York; and five over there: California (San Diego), Illinois, Pennsylvania State, Washington (Seattle), and Wisconsin (Madison). All are large successful civic universities.

David Pilsbury is keen to stress that the network's functions are threefold. "Our core function is as a research alliance – making links between institutions more robust, via research colloquia for academics, for example." The exchange scheme has been set up to underpin this agenda. "This is also about building contacts and trust, as well as being valuable for the students themselves." It is funded by annual subscriptions from each university into a fund administered by David Pilsbury and the vice chancellors and presidents.

Also supporting the alliance is the network's third element, its distributed learning scheme, which aims to make high-quality learning material available on the web to students who aren't able to study at one of the partner institutions. A public policy and management masters – the first course signed up by Britain's much-heralded e-university – will be the first offering, and David Pilsbury is fizzing with enthusiasm for it. "It will be unique in two ways: each module will have a UK and a US author; and we will be working with the BBC, which will be pulling out of its archives significant moments of public policy history for students to download."

So far, so good. But surely a worldwide universities network should have partners outside the US and the UK? "We're committed to being a truly global alliance," David Pilsbury says. Two Chinese institutions, Nanjing and Zhejiang Universities, have been signed up, and European members will follow in the next 12 months.