Universities are simultaneously intensely local and expansively global. They are shaped by their communities, and they shape their communities: without their universities, Oxford, or Cambridge, or Boston, or Heidelberg are unimaginable. The first thing you see as you emerge from Sheffield station is Sheffield Hallam University.
One of the ways in which universities shape their communities is through the diverse student community they attract. One of the highlights of last week for me was the opportunity to meet SHU’s international scholars at the awards ceremony and reception we held for them: scholars from more than two dozen countries around the globe developing their studies at undergraduate or postgraduate level in the University. I spoke to an MSc biomedical student from Bihar in India, to an MSc urban regeneration student from Nepal, to business students from central Europe: all with personal stories to tell about how their work would develop not only their own skills and knowledge, but their ability to lead their communities. It was a celebration of achievement and diversity, and a lively reminder of the contribution this University makes to the world, and to the cultural life of the city.
Almost anyone reading this blog will know that there is an ill-tempered policy debate about international students, and ever-tighter regulation of universities’ work in this area. The Home Secretary has urged universities to ‘develop business plans’ which do not involve ‘reliance’ on international students. But this is to miss the point of why universities engage in teaching international students. For this University, as for all other universities, it is not about a manageable ‘business plan’ but about our academic mission, and it works in at least three directions. In the first, we are educating international students to develop intelligent and well-grounded solutions to pressing local problems – improving healthcare, deploying technologies, developing education, and so on, and we are doing that in ways which, over time, will continue to pay rich rewards to the UK. In the second, we are educating UK students in teaching groups which have a genuinely global dimension. We are preparing our UK and our international students for operating in culturally and linguistically diverse workplaces. And in the third, we are bringing greater diversity and wider perspectives not just to the University but also to the communities in which we operate – back to that idea with which I began that universities shape their communities just as they are shaped by them. I talked to students from the Philippines and Colombia about their experience of living in Sheffield and how much they had learnt from it and their daily interactions outside the University.
Around the world, participation in higher education is growing at a phenomenal rate: the explosion of participation in East Asia and South America has been extraordinary in recent decades, and in Africa is beginning to accelerate. And one of the first things new and expanding universities seek to do is to attract an international student population. Last December, in Shanghai, I taught a Masters group which was as cosmopolitan as any I had seen in any university anywhere in the world. Universities understand that their mission to create knowledge and stimulate change is a global one, and students, increasingly, want their education to have a global dimension. Looking around Hallam Hall on Thursday evening at the international scholars who had secured places at Sheffield Hallam was a reminder of just how rewarding and important that dimension of our work is.