RMIT’s global strategy faces challenges. While few universities are as globalised as RMIT, other universities in Australia and around the world are going global. The biggest challenge, however, comes from within, according to Professor Andrew MacIntyre, DVC Global Development.
“We need to change the way we do it,” he said, noting that RMIT has had 30 years of success trying all sorts of things in a “Let 1000 flowers bloom” strategy. “That approach will not serve us well in the next 10 years,” he told the RMIT Strategy Week session on global opportunities. “We need to think carefully about where and how we engage.”
RMIT already has a clear global strategy, to optimise the student experience, contribute to research and enhance its long-term reputation and financial health, he said. RMIT also knows where it wishes to focus its efforts: Vietnam, China, Singapore, Indonesia, India and parts of Europe. The problem, he said, is that every new initiative must come at the expense of something else.
Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, gave an overview of major developments in world affairs. China, he said, will become an even greater power in many respects, but will jostle with other great powers next door - India, Japan and Indonesia. “The key to good China policy is good Asia policy,” he said.
For Australia’s relationship with China, there is inevitably a tension between our cultural and commercial opportunities and our geopolitical anxieties and difficulties, he said. There will always be cooperation, but also elements of mistrust and strategic competition. The hysterical reaction in the Chinese Twitterverse to Australian swimmer Mack Horton’s criticism of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang as a drug cheat was an example of this, as was the excessive Chinese reaction to Australia’s support of the Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling on the South China Sea.
Sheridan also noted that President Xi Jinping has changed the nature of Chinese government. Its more institutional, collective leadership style was reverting back to one man having all the power, as was the case under Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping. “So far, he’s been a very rational player…but one man power is a recipe for unpredictability and even instability,” he said.
In Europe, a resurgence of nationalism is directly challenging the EU, Sheridan said. The Brexit “leave” vote is a good move because the EU project has failed. Britain has dealt with voter concerns over economic and border control issues through a referendum, whereas elsewhere voters are being forced to move to non-mainstream parties and candidates, such as Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson.
“Europe will be better when it recognises the EU is not the solution but the problem,” he said. In international relations, however, it is almost impossible to put an institution to death, because of “the tenacity of the bureaucratic pulse to live on”. “The fate of Europe is in the hands of governments, not the EU,” Sheridan said.
In South-East Asia, which accounts for 65% of RMIT’s students, Sheridan said Indonesia was the most important element and a huge opportunity for Australia (along with India). “But the political future of South-East Asia is very uncertain,” he said, noting Thailand’s move to military rule and little democratic progress in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Another issue was the Australian public’s loss of interest in the region.
Saskia Loer Hansen, RMIT’s Executive Director, International Partnerships and Development, outlined some new developments in the university’s approach. In 2012, 58% of RMIT’s international partnership students were within two programs with one partner in Singapore, which made RMIT vulnerable if things changed. So the university is diversifying into other markets – but selectively.
“It’s not just about creating revenue opportunities, it’s about building exciting opportunities for our students,” she said, adding that RMIT is looking at its competitive advantages and niche opportunities. It’s no longer about offering Melbourne’s programs overseas, she said. “We have to identify our genuine strengths and where they fit with local government priorities.”
RMIT has a particular focus on Indonesia and is looking at an exciting opportunity in China, she said. The challenge in China, however, is to focus efforts on fewer partners and get depth.
“China reflects the problem RMIT has worldwide of having to make choices,” MacIntyre said. “It’s fabulous we have so many relationships because we got in early. But the game’s changed. The Chinese government quite reasonably wants to be selective and doesn’t want hundreds of foreign institutions in there for a short-term buck. They want their institutions to develop and partner with international institutions through long-term relationships. We have to shift or we’ll be caught in the transition.”,
Professor Min Gu, Associate DVC Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, RMIT, noted that China’s 13th five-year plan emphasises creativity, originality and innovation. This presents a great opportunity for RMIT to combine some of its strengths with markets that China is trying to develop, such as in 3D printing.
In Europe, RMIT also has tremendous opportunities, through the EU’s major funding source for universities, Horizon 2020, he said. This offers $17 billion for projects over the next five years, including $2.7 billion for research and innovation.
Si Min Low, an accounting student at RMIT partner Singapore Institute of Management, said she selected SIM because she could finish her degree in 18 months with no need for a bridging program. Although she was initially afraid about her exchange to Melbourne, she is now having the best time of her life. She enjoys going out with friends, the free food and real world simulations in class such as a foreign exchange market.
As for how RMIT could improve her experience, she suggested less theory and more practical classes and some help in getting her visa to come to Australia.
In response to questions about how to increase student mobility, Loer Hansen said one problem was having to straddle different academic calendars across the world. “Timing is a serious issue; we need to nail it,” she said, adding that most exchanges to date have had to fit with RMIT Melbourne’s semesters. One option may be to offer shorter exchanges and study tours, as well as more opportunities for internships. Another was to offer students who can’t be mobile the opportunity to digitally collaborate across locations.
Other suggestions on how to build international skills included paying attention to overseas news and collaborating internationally on research, including perhaps visiting oversea labs. “Cultural intelligence is also a basic building block,” Loer Hansen said.
An audience member commented that encouraging language learning would also help student mobility. Sheridan responded that Australia’s language policy was a total, abject and epic failure and we needed to focus on two or three languages, perhaps Indonesian and Chinese, as a national project.
An audience member questioned the panel about the global loss of confidence in institutions and the feeling that globalisation is creating more losers than winner. “Global connectedness for whose benefit?” he asked.
Sheridan responded that one reason nationalism is growing stronger is because hyper modernism erases so many identities around local and regional communities, so people were just left with their country to identify with. RMIT could counter this by building communities here and building international connections.
MacIntyre responded that those who benefited from RMIT’s global strategy are students, the countries it went into, through research and innovation, and the community connected to the university through enhancing its long-term reputational development and financial health.
But he agreed there are challenges. “The world is becoming a tougher place in which to operate. The previous 15 years were about globalisation; now the arrows are pointing the other way and the drawbridges are coming up, at least a little bit.”
- China will increase in power but will jostle with neighbours India, Japan and Indonesia.
- Europe’s resurging nationalism is challenging the European Union, which has failed.
- Indonesia is Australia’s biggest opportunity in South-East Asia, but the region faces political uncertainty over faltering democracy.
- RMIT must adapt its global strategy to selectively diversify by identifying its strengths and fitting them with local government objectives.
- RMIT can increase student mobility by fixing timing issues of different academic calendars, shorter exchanges, more internships, digital international collaboration and encouraging language learning and cultural intelligence.