The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) visits LSBM

14 Jul 2017

LSBM was proud to welcome Dr Joanna Newman MBE FRSA, Secretary General, Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) (pictured second from the left) to our usually sun-swept meeting halls at 7 Bedford Square on Tuesday 11 July.

The meeting overlooked gardens that were originally laid out around 1780. The ACU is not quite as old as our 'leafy haven in the midst of town', dating as it does from 1913, but it still lays claim to being the world's first international university network, with over 500 members (LSBM is proud to say that we were, in fact, the 500th!) and a shared belief in the value of higher education to society.

The meeting was a great opportunity for LSBM and the ACU to combine for the first time in starting to build the conversation about the future of education.


The organiser of the event, Arif Zaman, Deputy Director, Centre for Research and Enterprise at LSBM (pictured far right), had brought together many leading figures from the Higher Education Academy (HEA), the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME), the Commonwealth Secretariat Education Committee, as well as leading academics at LSBM, Student Guild leaders, teachers and students to discuss how the ACU can build on its legacy of 104 years of bridging the discourse between communities and widen collaborations between international educational institutions.

Dr Newman has herself only been Secretary General at the ACU for around two and half months, as she has gone from previously being an academic to running the higher education function of the British Library and also latterly the Vice-Principal International at Kings College London, so this is very much a time of rethinking missions and values and assessing what the future should be for the organisation. 

The current Mission, Vision and Values of the ACU are as follows:

Mission - To promote and support excellence in higher education for the benefit of individuals and societies throughout the Commonwealth and beyond.

Vision - Strengthening the quality of education and research that enables our member institutions to realise their potential, through building long-term international collaborations within the higher education sector.

Values - The ACU shares the values of the Commonwealth and believes in the transformational nature of higher education: its power and potential to contribute to the cultural, economic, and social development of a nation.

These are a worthy set of ideals. But if they are to be more than just words, then action is required, and Dr Newman said that the ACU were running focus groups and member engagement sessions to explore what the future direction of the ACU should be, while still feeling very positive about the current direction of travel, commenting that:

"The ACU is the world's oldest international network of universities, but it represents the youth and the future. There is a population of over 3 billion people in the Commonwealth, of whom the majority are under thirty. It is an incredibly diverse group of countries with over 50 countries...  So, the diversity of its members, the size and shape of our members, the universities, the private and the public, the new and the old is what I think is truly exciting.

The future of the ACU, as well as its past, is its convening power and how we make that convening power work for our members.

But also for bigger goals, for example in sustainable development, is how I would like our success to be judged."

The good news is that the financial footing of the ACU is particularly sound, with Dr Newman pointing out that they have around £20 million available from endowments to continue their ongoing grant and scholarship work. In addition, the organisation itself is undergoing a period of growth, with a particular emphasis on recruiting new members being one of Dr Newman's early priorities.

Taken together, the existing legacy that the ACU has built over the last hundred years, a healthy balance sheet and a new leader with a sense of purpose to take real-action in moving forward bodes well for the future.

Dr Newman opened by talking about her impressions of the ACU and expressed her interest in what the audience members already knew about the ACU, what they would like the ACU to be doing more of and what they thought they should do less of. Quoting from a speech from former Secretary General of the Commonwealth Kamalesh Sharma, Dr Newman said;

"We don't live in a flat world. We live in a colliding world and it is the Commonwealth values that underpin change and represent the future. We can create equity and access to higher education through the values of Commonwealth universities and that is where I think we can have our biggest impact." 

It was this sentiment that Dr Newman said had made her want to take the role at the ACU.

"We can't do everything. So what I would like to result in the next year is a road map, so that we know what we are going to achieve in the next couple of years under those broad-frameworks, narrowed down into specific areas where we might be really able to influence the change agendas for our members."

These would include:

1/ A network for collaboration and sharing of best practice
2/ Online Communities
3/ Face to face events - Both regional and international
4/ Opportunities for the exchange of ideas and people

The ACU already builds up best practice ideas and capacity building through such existing schemes as:

DRUSSA (Development Research Uptake in Sub-Saharan Africa)
CIRCLE (Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement)
CAASTNET (Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation Between Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe)
STARS (Structured Training for African Researchers)
ACU measures (The ACU’s annual online performance benchmarking exercise for university management)

They have a growing portfolio of new opportunities which include:

1/ New partnerships between the ACU and 6 partners to create new teaching curriculums
2/ Sharing scarce teaching resources across East Africa
3/ Blended learning - online courses coupled with face to face contact in their university

The ACU has a whole range of scholarships and bursaries, including:

As well as administering three schemes for the UK Government:

So, the ACU has a deep knowledge about scholarships, not just from administering them, but also about equity and access and how to choose between competing applications, and Dr Newman was keen to highlight this expertise in her presentation.

Dr Newman returned to the theme of 'convening power' to emphasise the role that she believes the ACU has to play in:

  • Advocacy and Lobbying: Particularly with regards to the role of Higher Education in Sustainable Development Goals
  • Continuing to build the capacity of the ACU through an expanding base of programmes, and also by
  • Increasing the number of members of the ACU so that it has a wider reach.

In essence trying to be the voice of the ACU members to governments so that what is important to them is put in proper focus, and likewise reflecting back to the members what governments feel are their priorities, so that there is a healthy dialogue between the two. This is primarily achieved through the Commonwealth Secretariat and Committees currently and is something the ACU is uniquely placed to do as the only higher education body currently in the secretariat.


The Wider Discussion...

John Fairhurst, Managing Director and Academic Principal at LSBM (pictured on the left) then thanked Joanna and opened up a wider debate about some of the many areas of potential educational cross-pollination between LSBM and the ACU, including areas of research, internationalisation, and opportunities for professional services staff that could help to enhance the student experience in all ways (not just the academic), as well as the wider mobility of all staff through such schemes as the Chevening Scholarships that the ACU administers.

A theme of how to go about adapting to change in the world of employment emerged, as well as the nature of social entrepreneurship along with accompanying issues such as increasing the availability of childcare.

Cal Courtney, Director, Centre for Student Engagement, Wellbeing and Success at LSBM commented:

"Part of the solution to these issues has to be based on listening to the voice of the poor. The voice of the poor brings a perspective into our creative discussions that actually leads to new solutions. One of the incredibly exciting things about the ACU is being attentive to that voice. When we talk about our vision for our students and what kind of graduates we want to create, one of the characteristics we want them to have is to be creative, because creative people can survive change.

For that reason we are going to be launching an Artist in Residence programme from October at LSBM.

Working hand-in-hand with students, but not just to create art, but also to lead a dialogue on what it is to be a creative person. Bringing that creativity and attentiveness to the voice of those who are marginalised, which in this world is predominantly the voice of women, and your capacity to bring those voices in from around the world is extraordinary."

(If you are interested in getting involved with the new Artist in Residence programme at LSBM then please email to discuss it further).

Examples from innovative employability programmes in South Africa were then highlighted by Penny Costley-White from the Commonwealth Secretariat Education Committee. Nick Skeet, Partnership Manager at the Higher Education Academy also talked about the work of the HEA across 26 countries, taking approaches from a wide variety of Higher Education institutions to highlight best practices to improve student outcomes.

Dr Newman was keen to explore synergies between these various organisations, and also discussed the possibility of creating a new initiative at the ACU, tentatively called 'Problem Bank' (which Dr Newman acknowledged she had first heard proposed at a recent conference she had attended); which could be a great way of creating dialogue between institutions and a practical way of helping to create real solutions by allowing the proposing of problems, and then encouraging a collaborative approach to their solution from across the Commonwealth.

This idea was warmly welcomed by David Clemson, Secretary at Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME-UKI), Nick Hillman, Deputy Academic Principal and Preetha Leela Chockalingham, Senior Lecturer in Academic English at LSBM.

The issue of gender discrimination was also raised by Delon Jones, Student Guild President-Elect at LSBM, as an area that the ACU could actively operate in and asked what the ACU were doing to combat the problem. Dr. Catherine Bishop, visiting from the University of Sydney and author of the award-winning 'Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney (New South Books, 2016) also spoke about the historical context and highlighted stories from female entrepreneurship.

Dr Newman from the ACU commented on the issue:

"Part of the respect and tolerance agenda has to be about respect of gender and transgender identities as well. You can't bully an institution into change. It has to be a grass-roots thing. You have to come up with what best practice is. There is also obviously the rubric of the law. But to make cultural change happen, to make emotional change happen. I think best-practice, leading by example and showing the benefits is always the best way to create change."

Cal Courtney, Director, Centre for Student Engagement, Wellbeing and Success at LSBM commented:

"We became a Stonewall Diversity Champion last year and that's been incredibly important, not just for our gay staff and students, but I think for the entire academic community here. Because it acknowledges that we care about students and staff with those identities and also that we are committed to living together as equal people."

(You can learn more about LSBM being Stonewall Diversity Champions here). 

This prompted further discussions about widening approaches to education curricula that included:

  • Possibly having to take subjects outside of the core subject areas (for example an arts module for an engineering student) that would help to broaden a student's educational perspective and encourage interdisciplinary approaches
  • Recognising the cultural context in which education is taught because this can vary from country to country (and possibly adapting teaching styles). As well as,
  • Acknowledging that extra-curricular activities are not simply an adjunct to an academic course, but an essential part of a 'complete' experience of higher education. 
  • Approaches to risk literacy in education

Finally, Dr Newman talked about one other initiative that the ACU is actively working on:

"One of the ideas we are working on is a Commonwealth wide recognition framework, which would enhance mobility and the exchange of skills.  The aim being that you could go from any university in a Commonwealth country to another and your skills and qualifications would be recognised, whether they were professional or academic."

An approach that Arif Zaman, Deputy Director, Centre for Research and Enterprise at LSBM pointed out already happens at the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA), so there is a clear precedent to develop the idea further.


The meeting finished with a few words from Dr. Nnamdi Madichie, Director, Centre for Research and Enterprise at LSBM (pictured second from the right):

"I would just like to thank the Secretary General of the ACU and attending guests. One thing we can take away from this gathering today is that the conversation has started, and that is very important.

Now that we understand some of the key things that are holding us together communication can improve, especially when it comes to networking and the exchange of ideas."

Many thanks to everyone who came along and we look forward to continuing the dialogue over the months and years ahead.

You can see the slides from the talk as a PDF here.

You can find more details about the ACU on our website here.

Arif Zaman has also produced a nice PDF of resources from the talk which you can find here.


Stuart Brown
Media and Content Manager

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