So one of the privileges of being involved in the global business which is higher education is the opportunity to travel. Conferences, meetings, recruitment fairs, reviews, validations, revalidations, external examining, secondments, exhibitions, collaborative provision, jobs, lectures, second campuses, training…One such recent privilege for me was a visit to Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, China, as a delegate on the March 2012 Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) International Leadership Development Programme (ILDP).

If one harboured any doubt about the size, scale, and long-term ambition of the university system in China  the ILDP would have dispelled that doubt, and quickly. Based in Hong Kong, the five-day programme provided an intensive lesson in the current educational situation for Hong Kong, South China and South East Asia. A day trip to  Guangzhou, Guangdong actualised some of the context sketches and reinforced the colossal dimensions of the China phenomenon. We heard that by 2015 China will likely be a net importer of students, with nearly 2,500 HEIs willing and able to accommodate the influx; by 2017 China is predicted to have 10 universities in the Top 200, by 2020 that could be 40.

Our visit to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) made clear the ambition and the acumen: HKUST did not exist twenty years or so ago, now there is a new campus with breathtaking views over the Clear Water Bay peninsula, supporting a student body of nearly 10,000 and a faculty of nearly 500. HKUST is already in the Times Top 100 global universities. A discussion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) indirectly corroborated the significance of the HKUST self-proclaimed miracle: in conversation with senior academics over the differences between the established global UK HE providers and the current scene in China, any sense of difference was treated blithely as a mere foible of contemporary time. The Chinese plan for the long-term we were tutored, and CUHK in keeping with their national peers fully expects to advance and advance: that we can do as we please while they advance and advance was the message at its sharpest.

Needless to say, all of the preceding is intimidating for UK academics. As much as the ILDP was usefully informative of the developments in that part of the world, it was equally useful in setting a challenge to us humbled participants to consider our individual capacities with the China context as backdrop. That said, after a confessed bout of resignation in the face of the inevitable shift eastwards of US and UK hegemonies on educational excellence, something was recuperated precisely because of the scale of higher education as a never-before-so-global practice. The question for leaders in this context seemed not to be the how of ‘my’ leadership at the service of ‘my’ institution in competition with ‘other’ emerging and burgeoning providers. That’s too corporate, too marketised, too internecine, and too technical.

The ILDP presented good reason to think more about the why of leadership in global academic practice: the motivation to lead beyond institutional authority on behalf of a world, no less, which might be advanced by being unbundled and ‘unsiloed’ by education across boundaries. The very presence of the ILDP in this context, as a generator of this sentiment, is testament to the ongoing ambition and developing capacity of UK HE writ large to contribute to the global development of education as a primary force for transnational collaboration and understanding. A large part of the why of leadership must be listening then, in post-colonial mode, but an equally large part must be the foregrounding of that long-established commonality of UK HEIs, education as, firstly, yes, an acute satisfier of national needs in respect of socioeconomic growth and stability, but also as, firstly too, a mechanism whereby a general, egalitarian intelligence might be developed and nourished at the service of a borderless creative empathy and a sense of shared resources in what is a tiny world.

And with that sentiment now stated, other select official Top 10 Times Highlights were:

  • Watching from a bridge at dusk the light from a solitary welder’s torch 200 feet below on a silent barge in a Hong Kong channel.
  • Seeing a small child smile in the rear of a car after hanging her puppet on the passenger’s seat; as her big sister had done moments earlier.
  • Witnessing a stranger in a strange Guangzhou street stop to help pick up a stranger’s strange dropped change.
  • Pondering upon a universalist societas civilis while eating Hainan chicken rice.