A Cosmopolitan University?

The recent University of Melbourne Refining Our Strategy document raises a number of important questions about the international character and mission of the University. A theme of the "cosmopolitan" is discernible in its reflections on how to deepen this international engagement. Melbourne itself is known as a cosmopolitan city, whose diversity is a great strength and attraction; the University of Melbourne should aspire to reflect this character.

Although the University is justly proud of its high international student numbers, it is sobering to admit that current numbers are driven as much or more by financial need than by more strategic and educationally-based targets such as international benchmarks for excellence and diversity, or specific relationships and partnerships. So long as the University loses money on domestic undergraduate enrolments, for which fees are capped at an artificially low level by government, international students are inevitably an attractive source of revenue as much or more than partners in achievement and cooperation.

Historically, the same dependence on international undergraduate enrolments has also led to a preponderance of students from a few countries which most readily provide them at present. Could these issues be separated? To have even the same number of international students as at present, but to bring them from a more diverse set of countries and cultures, would make the challenges and prospects vastly different. Pedagogically and otherwise, this would mean a richer experience for all students, domestic or international. It is also, interestingly, reminiscent of the idea of an “assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot”, as Newman defined the University itself.

The construction of a community of learning out of a diverse constituency has a corollary, namely that the various participants in the University are brought into a shared experience. The University of Melbourne has made a strength of its locale, and this has become a point of difference relative to other major Australian institutions. While there is no reason to avoid specific offshore activities and venues (in, say, the way Harvard has done, without in the least diluting its own strong sense of location), the University should continue to work to the specific strength of being in Melbourne.

A “cosmopolis” is literally a world city, or universal city. To pursue the “cosmopolitan” as a more robust way of developing the international character of the University implies the extension of its “public-spirited” character also. While the University has a specific responsibility to its local and national community, it also has a role in a wider world. This is a moral question, but one of immediate practical significance. An Australian higher education sector that treats international relationships primarily as revenue streams is likely to risk their sustainability.

The University, and Trinity Collge with it, can reflect further on how our international engagements should be developed to reflect more fully our mission of pursuing knowledge and serving the common, global, good.

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