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Colin Grant, VP (international), Queen Mary University of London

An education offering a smorgasbord of foreign languages led Colin Grant to develop a lifelong engagement with language, culture and politics. Previously at the University of Southampton, Grant has been recently appointed vice-principal (international) at Queen Mary University of London, and is chair of the Russell Group International Forum. Here he talks about his plans for Queen Mary, the role of foreign languages in internationalisation, and how to foster open-mindedness.


The PIE: What should internationalisation mean for universities?

Colin Grant: In a university context, it has to be, in my view, pan-institutional. For a world-leading university like Queen Mary University of London, there are six dimensions: international research partnerships, international policy and industrial collaborations, alumni relations, student mobility – inward and outward and nurturing next-generation leaders at UG, PGT and PGR levels.

“If we are serious about it, [internationalisation] has to suffuse everything we do”

If a university takes internationalisation seriously, it needs to be engaged across every function. If we are serious about it, it has to suffuse everything we do – curriculum, HR, health and safety, risk management, all of that. Effectively, it becomes a pan-institutional layer of the overall institutional strategy. That’s how I see it.

Attracting very talented future leaders, because that’s what students are, is a key part – but it’s just one of six dimensions. We cannot end up with a lopsided, partial university international strategy.

The PIE: You started your position at QMUL two months ago. Can you tell us more about your plans?

CG: Queen Mary is recognised for its international outlook. It has a significant appetite for overseas engagement. We have three big operations in China, a campus in Malta.

My early perception is that we can build on and leverage our strength as a whole across the disciplines, and start to engage more strongly in a coherent way with different parts of the world. We have a big footprint in China, wonderful relationships there. We need to be engaging with the Americas, MENA, sub-Saharan Africa, India, ASEAN, and of course, last but not least, the rest of Europe.

The PIE: What are your next targets, in terms of regions?

CG: I think there is a need for us to engage even more strongly in ASEAN.

Singapore is obviously an innovation powerhouse. We are building some very exciting relationships there. The first MoU I signed on my watch is with the National University of Singapore, for dentistry. That is a nice start, but it has to be more than that. I am always looking to widen the channel, pack the relationship with more disciplines, more movement of people.

“Bilingualism is increasingly the norm”

Then there’s Malaysia, there are certain pressing concerns in the country, one being public health concerns, for example, non-communicable diseases, and I have experience in Malaysia so I am very keen to engage there.

With Thailand we work quite closely with the Thai judiciary, training next-generation Thai judges, so again we have a strong presence there; and then there is Indonesia, which is probably a location where UK universities have tended to be late to the party.

So those will give a flavour of our engagement in terms, in order, of world-class research collaboration, public health engagement, policy making and then recruiting talent.

And then there is India, wonderful India, as my next major priority this year.

The PIE: You speak seven languages. What do you think the role of foreign language skills is in internationalisation?

CG: We have to be very mindful of the fact that our students and staff are competing on a global stage. Many of our competitor universities overseas are already producing bilingual graduates, so bilingualism is increasingly the norm.

It is one thing to hold a conversation with a partner in English – but if you can speak the partner’s language that just accelerates the trust-building process.

I am delighted we have a Confucius Institute here. I am a Mandarin learner, we run a range of languages for all programs here. As a university, we understand deeply the value of cultural literacy.

With Queen Mary’s enormous diversity and richness, we’ll find that we have a large number of staff who are international. There is already a multicultural staff mix, and here in London we celebrate diversity on our doorstep, our community is also multilingual, so we are surrounded by a multicultural mix which fuels the diversity – it’s something we need to celebrate. It’s a source of great resilience.

“Speaking another language is not just a skill – it’s accessing a different reality”

The PIE: Could outward student mobility be supported by stronger language skills?

CG: I think it’s part of it. I don’t think it’s the necessary condition, but it does broaden horizons. Speaking another language is not just a skill – it’s accessing a different reality.

It changes the way we codify, refer to, see, express ideas. It creates a different perception of the world. So I think language learning certainly helps build that higher level of fluency and literacy across cultures, but in turn, requires an openness to other cultures and experiences.

The PIE: How do we foster this openness?

CG: I think aside from foreign language learning, what helps is certainly pushing an agenda that celebrates diversity, that brings different cultures together, that creates next-generation leaders fit for a very complex, fast-moving, quite turbulent world. That’s understanding risk, contingency, fragility, the potential for misunderstanding. If we nurture students in our programs to stand up to those challenges, then we have done a good job.

It’s a real education being here at Queen Mary – simply walking around our campuses, one can’t help being educated by the richness of it all. We also have a vast alumni community, and we have 162 nationalities on campus, which is possibly a record. Let’s not only celebrate that, let’s really drive the excellence agenda through the diversity that we have.

The PIE: How do you think Brexit will impact on your plans – and the rest of the sectors?

CG:  We rely on partnerships for excellence. If one looks at universities around the world, there is a very high concentration of partners across Europe and we’ll continue to engage very strongly with those universities, with those students, with policymakers, and help to shape a good settlement for UK universities as part of the Brexit process.

The real risk for the sector right now is uncertainty, but universities stand for a certain set of values, we create opportunities for young people who voted very strongly to remain. The work continues, and commitment to open society is part of what we do.

The PIE: How do you see transnational education shaping international education?

“I’d like to see a little bit more reciprocity in the flows with our overseas partners”

CG: We have a significant TNE footprint, with 4,000 students on different programs in China, and of course our medical campus in Malta. I would like to see more of our London-based students seizing the very structured opportunity that these partnerships give us, for a study abroad experience, or internship. I’d like to see a little bit more reciprocity in the flows with our overseas partners.

With our TNE partnerships, we aim to have an impact at local and global level.

The university system in the UK is inconceivable without this commitment to internationalisation. Our strength lies in excellence, in research and education, but above all it lies in that openness, in the open campus spirit, the interaction with different nationalities.

The PIE: How can access to international education be widened?

CG: There are a number of assets at our disposal as a sector. First of all: are we engaging strongly enough with our local community? We have strong bonds with our community. Let us look at that community as a source of international inspiration alongside our brilliant public engagement work. That’s one asset that I would like to look at.

Another would be the intellectual and cultural capital of our student population of 25,000, over 50% international if we include distance learning and TNE, and many multilingual UK students. There is a way by which one can leverage and nurture that richness. And then there is the alumni community overseas. It’s wrong to equate that community just with fundraising – it can be part of it, but more than anything else our alumni have intellectual, cultural and social capital, and they can mentor and create more opportunity for our students. That’s another source of strength.

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