Should an MOU on values be standard in international higher education partnerships?

Should an MOU on values be standard in international higher education partnerships?

The recent Scholars at Risk Global Congress in Amsterdam explored whether inclusion of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on higher education values should be made a standard practice in international partnerships between HEIs. The suggestion goes beyond current statements of values by calling for a built-in process for reviewing adherence to values pledges – such as an exchange of letters between the partners – and transparency in sharing such reviews with the partners’ stakeholders.

The suggestion aims to promote values while encouraging candid discussion of differences among partners from various regions and cultures. By limiting it to voluntary implementation between institutions, the suggested practice would encourage the continuing development of cross-border partnerships, but with values understandings made clear, while avoiding the potentially coercive dynamics that could result if it were extended to agreements involving host states or major funders.

Values in international education

The suggested practice is rooted in a desire to see the higher education sector flourish; to see it serve society to the greatest degree possible, intellectually, of course, but also economically, politically, socially and culturally. Reaching this fullest vision for higher education is implicitly a part of discussions about the role of the university in preparing states and peoples for what are known as the global ‘knowledge economy’ – focusing on skills and economic development – and the ‘knowledge society’ – focusing on the broader dimensions of citizenship and social development. These conversations have grown with the unprecedented internationalisation in higher education, including growth in cross-border institutional partnerships, ranging from bilateral exchanges to full satellite campuses and multi-institution education clusters.

As internationalisation has grown, the higher education sector has, to its credit, put more and more attention on the quality of the programmes developed. But this discussion has tended to focus on quality narrowly defined in terms of academic content and specific services. In many cross-border partnerships the contribution of values to quality higher education is not routinely discussed.

Risks for participating institutions and the higher education sector generally

When values are discussed, references are often lacking in depth or specifics such as implementing procedures comparable to those discussed for other elements of quality assurance. When discussion has taken place beyond general assurances, the details have generally not been shared publicly. Both situations can create real risks, including:

  • Quality risks if limiting the discussion to small groups of persons increases the likelihood of misunderstandings arising between partners as activities develop
  • Legal, financial and reputational risks for each of the partners, again as wider numbers of persons begin to pay attention to the partnership and activities undertaken
  • Values risks impacting not only the partners but the higher education sector if the lack of transparency contributes to an evolution of dual-standards: one set of standards for the ‘home’ campus, faculty and students, and a second, more limited set of standards and freedom for ‘satellite’ campuses and programmes, the ‘local’ faculty that staff them, and the various students who study in them.

Transparent discussions of core values

The increasing importance of higher education to all societies; rapid internationalisation of higher education; and risks to higher education values (and therefore quality) presented by this rapidly changing environment, all point towards a need for a more systematic and transparent discussion of core higher education values issues in cross-border agreements.

There have been many steps in this direction, including for example the recent Hefei Statement on the Ten Characteristics of Contemporary Research Universities issued in 2013 by the Association of American Universities, Group of Eight (Australia), League of European Research Universities and the Chinese 9 Universities, and later joined by the Russell Group, U15 Canada, AEARU (Association of East Asian Research Universities), RU11 Japan and the Hong Kong 3. It is notable not only for the breadth of countries represented but also for recognising two key elements: First, that there are common characteristics of quality higher education institutions that do not depend on culture or country. Second, that institutional adherence to these is an area of legitimate interest to international partner institutions.

The Guidelines for an Institutional Code of Ethics in Higher Education, jointly issued in 2012 by the International Association of Universities and the Magna Charta Observatory, is another example. The guidelines encourage individual institutions to develop internal practices on higher education ethics, including but not limited to higher education values.

Collaborative drafting of a model MOU on higher education values

The next step is for a group of leading higher education institutions, networks and associations to decide ‘Would such a practice be beneficial?’ If the new MOU includes a process for regular review and transparency – if it is ‘more than paper’—then the answer is likely ‘Yes’. In that case, the same group could participate in jointly drafting a model MOU, which could then be made public for discussion and voluntary use. Institutions entering international partnerships could then choose to begin their discussions about values using the model, and could agree among themselves whether to adopt it in whole, in part, or with amendments. This would save institutions the trouble of starting from the beginning, while retaining the flexibility to allow partners to adjust it to fit their partnership. The existence of the model would encourage discussion of values between partner institutions.  Broad use of the model would make it easier to raise and discuss values questions as inclusion of such a statement becomes a standard, normal practice. Transparency in the use of a model MOU might also fuel discussion throughout the sector, and could result in positive harmonisation in understandings, leading to updates and improvements in the model and, ultimately, greater respect for core principles.

Principles for drafting a model MOU on higher education values

Without pre-determining the specific content of any model MOU, the Amsterdam meeting discussed the following four basic principles which might guide such drafting:

  1. The MOU should be not legally binding. It should be aimed at promoting transparency, dialogue and mutual understanding.
  2. The MOU should be limited to values issues related to the activities contemplated in the partnership. While it might be hoped that values articulated in relation to the partnership would also apply to other aspects of each partner’s operations, demanding such universal coverage would likely make it too difficult to reach an understanding, and could undermine the voluntariness of the exercise, if one partner was perceived as attempting to impose conditions on conduct unrelated to the partnership. 
  3. Definitions of higher education values articulated in any MOU must be consistent with internationally recognised standards, including for example the UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel.
  4. An MOU must include a process for transparency, reporting and review. Such a process might include:
  • appointing a senior academic official or committee to oversee adherence to the values articulated
  • a process for receiving and responding to comments or complaints
  • a regular schedule for reporting between the parties, such as an annual exchange of letters regarding adherence to the values within the partnership
  • a process for sharing such information with the public, and especially with the respective higher education communities and their stakeholders

If the EAIE, its members and other leaders of the international higher education community were to develop a practice of standard inclusion of an MOU on higher education values in international partnerships, and if the development of this practice and the content of such an MOU were undertaken in a fashion that is genuinely respectful of all partners and their constituencies, it could have enormous positive impact. It would help to encourage the continuing expansion of cross-border partnerships while reducing risks to the partners and the sector. It would broaden and enrich the discussion about the quality of these partnerships by including the core values of the modern university, on which quality ultimately depends. It would encourage awareness, provide a positive framework for discussion (both between partners, and within each partner’s local constituencies), and ultimately help lead to greater mutual understanding and respect for values themselves.

Adapted from remarks delivered by Robert Quinn Executive Director, Scholars at Risk Network

Read more about the Scholars at Risk Global Conference on the Chroincle of Higher Education blog.