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Commonwealth Universities secretary general promotes common values

John Tarrant is in Canada to meet with university presidents

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | NOV 17 2008

Common values, common structures and a common language – those are the benefits of membership in the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said the association’s secretary general, John Tarrant in a recent visit to Ottawa to meet with Canada’s university presidents.

In an interview with University Affairs, Professor Tarrant explained that if a Canadian university were seeking to collaborate internationally at any level, looking to an ACU-member institution “starts you on the third step of the ladder, rather than on the ground floor.”

That’s because, first, the universities share a common language, English. (Although he hastened to add the “obvious caveat” that Canada also has French-language universities and noted that ACU is working in collaboration with the Agence universitaire de la francophonie in Africa.)

The “second step,” he said, is even more significant: universities within the Commonwealth share a common structure, a common way of doing things and a common set of beliefs because they share a common origin.

“Thus we understand the Anglo-Saxon governance model of universities,” he said. But, more importantly, “we share common ideals of higher education in terms of striving towards institutional autonomy and academic freedom. These are very important underpinning beliefs.”

Established in 1913, the ACU counts nearly 500 member institutions in 37 countries, including most of the member institutions of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Despite the great diversity of institutions within the association, they have similar concerns, said Professor Tarrant. According to a survey of presidents and vice-chancellors of its member institutions, the top three issues were: funding, attracting and retaining faculty and staff, and accreditation and quality control.

The association can’t help much with funding, he said, but it does lobby internationally on the importance of higher education. As for human resources, ACU has several networks for professional staff at universities. On quality and accreditation, “we can bring together international teams of senior people at universities to work with member states on those sorts of issues,” he said. “We can pull down experts on almost anything with an international perspective.”

ACU also promotes exchanges among institutions and has an endowment fund that it uses to facilitate mobility through the awarding of fellowships.

“We’d like to help. We believe we can help,” said Professor Tarrant. “We need to hear from you.”

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