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WUN featured in Capital Times

June 26, 2007

Peter Jones came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the University of Bristol thanks to a scholarship from the Worldwide Universities Network, a global research and graduate education network that develops collaboration among 18 universities here and internationally — and helps individual students.

“I arrived in Madison at the end of March when it was still cold and gray. I had a warm welcome, though,” Jones recalled. “Complete strangers offered me a lift from the Memorial Union and left me at the place where I am staying with a big hug and ‘Welcome to Madison.’ I guess that is what you call a Midwest reception.”

He has since enjoyed the mix of the university and local residents at the Memorial Union.

“I get a real feel of the public university mission being met here, which makes quite a contrast with the kinds of splits between universities and the wider community in the United Kingdom — the town and gown divide,” said Jones, 42, who will head back to England today.

Six years into a collaboration among universities in England, the U.S. and increasingly other parts of the world, more faculty and students are participating in the Worldwide Universities Network to share expertise and collaborate on research.

Jones, a Ph.D. candidate looking at educational policy for schools and universities in the European Union, noted that the EU has been trying to compete with the United States in terms of innovation, efficiency and private funding for universities.

“Now I know what the competition is all about,” he said, adding that the U.S. higher educational system is much more diverse than Europeans think it is.

Jones found library service at the University of Wisconsin outstanding, and he was equally impressed by the size, scale and scope of the university. He has learned much from “top-rank” visiting speakers from around the United States and Europe and from faculty and graduate students from the schools of geography and education.

UW-Madison students also benefit considerably from the university’s membership in the international consortium that is the World Universities Network, as Max Grinnell found out.

Grinnell, a 31-year-old Madison native who is getting his Ph.D. in geography, spent four months at the University of Sheffield in England in 2004 as part of a WUN program to do research on regional development issues in Great Britain. He continues to have contact with professors and students at Sheffield.

“I was looking at the roles of the University of Sheffield and other institutions and policy groups involved in the transformation of regional economies. I was looking at the region saying What can be done?’ It’s like restructuring in the States, how to make Pittsburgh into a Silicon Valley,” Grinnell said.

“You take older industrial regions and say what is next besides having people on welfare? How do we use existing institutions and look at new partnerships?”

He found that not every region can become a high-tech information center, and that too few people in the Sheffield area had the higher education needed for such a transformation.

“Ideas about using higher education institutions to transform a region are disseminated at international conferences and urban development forums, but that ignores local knowledge and practices,” Grinnell said. “You can’t do boilerplate plans that work thousands of miles away.”

Sheffield does have expertise in computer game animation and boasts a Rolls Royce plant, but he found that nanotechnology and the information economy may be out of reach. “Certain local leaders in and around Sheffield had a tinge of old-fashioned boosterism that had no basis in a short- or medium-term reality,” he said.

Worldwide Universities Network:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison was a founding member of WUN in 2001.

Gilles Bousquet, dean of International Studies and director of the International Institute at the UW, heads the program. Kris Olds, an associate professor of geography, is the faculty liaison.

The members are generally research universities, and there has been an Anglo-American tilt, but that is changing as members such as Nanjing University in China join.

The WUN is focused on research and teaching, not on making money for offering online courses as some international networks are, according to Bousquet.

“Our ambition is to facilitate and intensify faculty collaboration and student mobility,” he said.

“These are comprehensive research-driven institutions that also cared about education and sharing expertise. There is a requirement that they make a commitment. It is very driven bottom-up, with a small central administration and projects developed by students and faculty.”

WUN — which has a two-person headquarters staff in England — provides an infrastructure and some resources needed to offer courses, but does not tell faculty members to teach a course or offer a program on a certain subject, Olds stressed.

“We collaborate on joint seminars or joint summer institutes,” Bousquet said. “The institutions get to know each other over time and trust is created.”

Virtual courses and seminars allow people to participate internationally and hear expert speakers gathered at a faraway location. Live interactive video seminars are also archived on the WUN Web site (http://www.wun.ac.uk), to provide additional access to the work of major scholars.

The network will provide limited seed money to get a project started so faculty can then seek additional funding from the National Science Foundation, the European Union, corporate partners or foundations.

Once a program is established, people from other universities outside the network also may participate, and fees are kept relatively low, according to Olds.

“We are in an era where it is increasingly critical for faculty to globalize research. This is not just a single collaboration for a few years. We have to have a sustained collaboration framework, which WUN provides,” Bousquet said.

The UW-Madison pays $60,000 per year to participate in the network and also provides some funds for course proposals.

One of the challenges is letting faculty know about the possibilities, according to Olds.

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