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University challenge: can the Rock build its first uni?

John Law of the British Council analyses the opportunities and challenges for Gibraltar’s ambitious higher education plans, and says playing to “niche” strengths could be the secret to success

By New Statesman

What do the teams on the popular TV quiz University Challenge, now in its 21st series on the BBC, have in common with Gibraltar? The answer is that both face a tricky and teasing set of questions in pursuit of their education ambitions.

The role and purpose of a university is difficult to define, due to the broad diversity of institutions found around the world. Traditionally “seats of learning”, many have now evolved to fulfil a particular mission, perhaps focusing on serving their local community or region, providing vocational education, industrial links or innovative research. The biggest challenge for any university is getting that focus right: one that suits the environment and context in which it operates and through which it can derive a sustainable flow of funding. Ultimately, for its survival, a university must raise the aspirations and opportunities of its students and prepare them as global citizens.

So, you’re a small country and you want to establish your first university. If you are lucky enough to be Gibraltar, with its high employment, and strong, self-reliant 21st-century economy, you might be thinking, what’s the problem?

Gibraltar’s Education Minister Gilbert Licudi recently announced that a new institute for higher education will enrol its first cohorts by September 2015. Does this signal that Gibraltar fits the typical “university-ready” profile, having reached a certain level of wealth and international reputation?

Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from the increased internationalisation of higher education. The University of Malta, for example, has 11,000 students including 700 international students, within an island population of around 420,000. It participates in the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme and the Bologna process for compatibility of higher education across Europe, indicating the importance of the international dimension. The University of Middlesex opened an international branch campus in Malta in 2013, offering courses in business, finance and ICT. The rationale here is their recognition of Malta as regional centre for international business – with the information and communications technology industry already a main pillar of the economy.

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Interestingly, the University of Middlesex also opened an international branch campus in Mauritius in 2010. Lessons from these and other international ventures may transfer and be usefully implemented, but Gibraltar’s case is far from “typical”.

With an absence of natural resources, but home to high levels of business acumen amongst its outward-looking 30,000 locals, Gibraltar is uniquely positioned to question how a new university might be designed to be “fit for purpose” within its geographical and social context.

Flanked by Africa and Europe, Gibraltar is a strategically important as both a political and economic partner within the region. This has nurtured a buoyant service-based economy, encompassing a wide range of flourishing businesses: tourism, finance, shipping, telecommunications, e-commerce and e-gaming. With a spectacular GDP per capita (globally ranked in the top 20), how can such success be translated to higher education provisions that serve its local community and develops Gibraltar’s knowledge-based economy? Perhaps by playing to its strengths and focusing on supplying graduate talent to niche businesses.

Finding the right partner will be critical

The prospect of creating a “centre of excellence in education” within the Mediterranean presents both challenges and opportunities. While no single road map works perfectly, it is unsurprising that Minister Licudi has embraced partnerships. He announced the institution will include a School of Health Studies, a collaboration with Kingston University. Finance studies, including courses on Gibraltar tax and law, will collaborate with the London School of Economics. This indicates a vision and mission that aligns with national and international ambitions.

But what of teaching and learning versus research? As systems and institutions internationalise, new opportunities for conducting cross-border research offer rich rewards. Researchers returning from overseas are significantly more productive than those who have never travelled (72 per cent of UK researchers published abroad between 1996 and 2012). Key to driving innovation will be Gibraltar’s ability to enhance capacity in niche, world-class research through developing international networks.

It is notable that the new university will offer niche developments such as research in sports science in collaboration with UEFA. The School of Life Sciences and Gibraltar Mediterranean Studies will be predominantly research-driven, including post-doctoral studies. A language centre will appeal to international students eager to learn English. Such combined assets will undoubtedly attract international students and faculty, creating potential to become an education hub similar to models in Hong Kong or Singapore, but attracting students from the African continent.

So what of the challenges? Attracting talented academics and researchers can be expensive and problematic. When e-gaming arrived in Gibraltar 15 years ago, competent staff were scarce.  Now the pool of talent is stable, but it has taken time to develop. Experience shows that transnational education arrangements can help bridge this gap, by providing visiting faculty while local talent is developed. This highlights the importance of a strategic approach, with an intention to develop and progress the university over time.

It is understandable why the Gibraltar government has sought advice from the Seychelles, (90,000 population), which successfully launched its own university in 2009. The key message for Gibraltar must be this: finding the right partner is critical. International, multilateral partnerships will develop sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships. Only then will new generations of scholars interact and learn from each other in innovative ways. Who knows – perhaps a future series of University Challenge will feature a team from Gibraltar’s first institute for higher education?

Dr John Law is a higher education adviser with the British Council 

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