Tony Blair's global 'battle of ideas'

Tony Blair, March 2011 Tony Blair: "We adjust or we are swept away"

Tony Blair's faith foundation works with universities in countries including the US, China, the UK, Canada and Sierra Leone. He also lectures at Yale. Mr Blair gave his views on university globalisation to the BBC News website.

You've talked in recent speeches about the accelerating pace of ideas and how quickly changes in belief and events can follow.

Is the globalisation of higher education part of this battle of ideas, in a kind of arms race of values and cultures?

"I would say it is not only part of the battle, but in fact the frontlines. When I am asked to define the leading characteristic of today's world, I say: It's speed of change. We adjust or we are swept away.

"Gone are the days of ideological disputes between political systems. With the fall of the Soviet Union, we have seen economic ideology recede into the background.

"No one today disputes the power of capitalism - the only question anyone is asking is to what extent does government regulate otherwise free markets.

"Instead, the debate has become focused on how open or closed our societies should be - how understanding we are of differing opinions, cultures, and customs both inside and outside of our respective communities.

'Fight ideas with ideas'

"This is also where religious ideology comes to the fore. The role of religion has been both enormously positive, which a lot of people fail to appreciate, and negative, which more people are aware of. But the nature of the debate in both the secular and religious areas are ideological.

"You fight ideas with ideas. It is now up to institutions of higher education to engage directly on these issues - not only their students, but current world leaders in politics, finance, and international diplomacy, along with the general public.

"If universities begin to foster this kind of dialogue in the public sphere, they will create a safe and objective space for these questions to be addressed and explored, which will not only produce a better informed public but also force advocates of exclusive political or religious ideologies to support their positions with rigorous and convincing arguments - no small feat."

How much will the economies of the future depend on the international competition between university systems? I'm thinking of how global firms such as Google and Facebook have grown so quickly from higher education.

"It already depends on competition between university systems. If you look at the world's current and emerging superpowers, nearly all have either well-established or are currently establishing university systems that will help them compete in the global economy.

"The three largest higher education systems in the world are in the United States, China and India."

How do you see the impact of globalisation on the international university system?

"I see globalisation's impact on the international university system in four ways.

"The first is that universities are increasingly eager to connect with others around the world on sustained and continuous projects and partnerships.

"Although conferences and joint-research programmes have existed for some time, we are now seeing a desire on the part of universities to enter into long-term partnerships with other universities.

"I was just visiting one of the lead universities in our Faith and Globalisation Initiative, Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, which has joint-degree programmes with schools such as Carnegie-Mellon in the US, the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, and Reutlingen University in Germany.

"Two of our lead universities, Yale and the National University of Singapore, have recently announced plans to establish a jointly-run school in Singapore that will open in the autumn of 2013.

"The second is that universities are increasingly aware of the multitude of global perspectives that exist on every academic issue.

"Given the increasing amount of connectivity between universities, along with the ease of accessing information, no longer can any university or faculty ignore the wealth of approaches to today's most pressing academic questions.

Start Quote

Yale's endowment is nearly four times the size of Sierra Leone's GDP”

End Quote Tony Blair

"So you'll find scholars from Europe and the United States, two areas that have traditionally been disdainful of research and theory produced elsewhere, increasingly taking into account the work of academics from South America and Asia.

"What this means for students is that they are no longer exclusively exposed to scholarship produced from people whose lives and biases mirrored their own, but are now forced to consider new perspectives that might challenge what they'd been previously taught.

"Thirdly, globalisation has made university campuses more diverse than ever before.

"I've taught a class called Faith and Globalisation at Yale for the past three years and every year the class included students from all walks of life and from all around the world.

"If you look at photographs from Yale's graduating classes 50 years ago, everyone looks the same. And that's because, by and large, they were all from the same towns, went to the same prep-schools, and were going to work at the same companies.

Tony Blair, March 2011 Tony Blair saw the "virtual university" at Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico last month

"When I gave a speech at Yale in 2008, the student body looked more like delegates from the United Nations. This also means that universities are now engaged in a global competition for students, and no one can rest simply on their reputation.

"Finally, the technological advances of globalisation mean that more and more people are given access to higher education than ever before.

"Although internet learning might not be a perfect substitute for the classroom experience, the simple fact is that there are millions of people who have been excluded from the university experience due to geographical isolation and/or financial restraints.

"One of the Faith Foundation's partner universities, Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, has an amazing virtual university through which they have connected 13 campuses across the country as well as individuals in remote areas to give them the opportunity to get a university education."

Will globalisation in universities be any fairer to the world's poor than economic globalisation?

"It certainly can be and I think it is currently leaning in that direction. As I mentioned earlier, the example of Tecnologico de Monterrey is encouraging.

"Through the use of the internet, they have been able to provide people in remote parts of Mexico with access to university courses through their Virtual University.

"Yale University has a site called Open Yale on which they give access to video and audio recordings of semester-long classes, along with reading assignments and transcripts of the lectures - all entirely free.

"So anyone who wants to take Introduction to Ancient Greek History with Professor Donald Kagan, or Financial Markets with Professor Robert Schiller, now can.

Fourah Bay College Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The city was once known as the "Athens of Africa"

"In addition, one of the things that has become incredibly clear in working with the universities involved in the Faith and Globalisation Initiative is that the world's richest and most rigorous universities are deeply committed to capacity development within countries and institutions that have not been able to benefit from the same social or economic advantages.

"Recently Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone became the newest partner of our university programme. Fourah Bay is an amazing institution. In fact, my dad taught there in the 1960s.

"But as a result of the civil war and other problems Sierra Leone has faced, Fourah Bay has not benefited from the economic and institutional development like universities such as Yale or McGill.

"As a matter of fact, Yale's endowment is nearly four times the size of Sierra Leone's GDP. And when I was at McGill to give a lecture to their Religion and Globalisation course, I had lunch with a selection of faculty members from around the university - all of whom were adamant that we bring more schools like Fourah Bay into the initiative.

"It wasn't enough for them that we reach students at the world's most acknowledged universities. They demanded that we reach out to institutions that had been less fortunate than themselves, to provide them with teacher training, to give their students more opportunities to interact with other students around the world and to hopefully play a role in transforming the wider society.

"So if other universities have faculty members that are anything like those at McGill, I would say the future looks promising."

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