As we approach the internal launch of our new Perivoli Africa Research Centre, Isabella has invited me to provide some reflections on the establishment of PARC at the University of Bristol. As PARC Manager, one key question comes to mind: how have we arrived at this privileged position? What were the circumstances that precipitated the need for such a centre? Was this pure happenstance or a form of cultivated serendipity?
It’s a tricky question but having been engaged in building international research partnerships at the University over the past decade, I hope to offer some interesting historical insights.
Internationalising our research and building global partnerships has always been important at Bristol. From our founding membership of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) in 2000 to our most recent membership of TransformU, the UNFPA’s (United Nations Population Fund) university network in 2019, the university has prosecuted various models of international cooperation and partnerships with other HEIs, for example:
- On a network level with the Coimbra Group, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the European Universities Alliance, RENKEI and StoRM.
- On a bilateral basis with the University of Kyoto, University of Cape Town and most recently with the University of Ghana in 2019.
These are of course at the institutional level and do not include the numerous other partnerships being forged by individual researchers, research teams or departments and schools.
The nature and goals of our international partnerships are multitudinal and diverse, from accelerating the university’s research and teaching missions to providing a channel for thought leadership from our academic, professional services staff and student community.
I am most familiar with the internationalisation of research – in both directions as it were. I was manager of Bristol’s first multidisciplinary research institute, the Institute for Advanced Studies, where our efforts focused on bringing visiting academics to Bristol (Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professorship Scheme) and providing internal research fellowships (University Research Fellowships and Senior Research Fellowships) to enhance the university’s research base and build the archetypal “community of scholars”. I have also been managing our engagement in the WUN, a global partnership (currently comprising 23 universities, spanning 14 countries on 6 continents) with the mission to catalyse international research collaborations to address issues of global significance. The WUN also provides opportunities for research mobility for our PhD students and early career researchers.
So how has the internationalisation of research landscape changed, for us and globally? One lens though which we could examine this is how the membership of the WUN itself has evolved since its inception. Although the focus on research since its outset remains, WUN’s membership has developed from what was a UK/US partnership to one which now spans six continents. The impetus to broaden its membership has been driven by the urgency to address cross border research and the emergence of funding opportunities to support this.
In September 2015, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all United Nation member states. This was a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. Since then, the SDGs have provided a framework for cross border research for HEIs and indeed, the SDGs underpin the WUN’s Global Challenges research priorities and the overarching aim of the network is to accelerate sustainable development. More broadly in the sector and of significance is the emergence now of global league tables that assess universities’ performance against the SDGs (research, outreach and stewardship) such as the Times Higher Education’s new Impact Rankings.
From the UK perspective the most notable development in research funding to help accelerate the SDGs was the launch of the UKRI/DFID Global Challenges Research Fund in 2016. Concurrent to this was the launch of DFID’s Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform initiative, a programme developed to strengthen higher education to better meet the needs of students, employers and societies in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These government funding initiatives were an addition to the growing opportunities from foundations, philanthropy and increasingly, from the private sector as a response to their corporate social responsibility commitments.
Against this backdrop and since 2016, the WUN has welcomed a further 4 partners from ODA countries to the network and has a total of 3 African members. It was also in 2016 that WUN launched its Global Africa Group with a vision to develop a regional research hubs model at the Universities of Cape Town, Ghana and Nairobi and to support sustainable development and capacity-building by providing the evidence-base for innovations and impacts in the natural and social sciences.
As a founding member of WUN, the University of Bristol has been fully engaged in the development of the Global Africa Group. In fact, Isabella now co-Chairs this group with colleagues from the University of Cape Town.
So is the establishment of PARC at Bristol pure happenstance or cultivated serendipity? I would lean towards the latter: it is the result of our collective efforts over the past decades to internationalise our research and teaching, of hitting the “sweet spot” where academic interest and momentum align with both our institutional priorities and the external global research and funding landscape. These developments at Bristol are synergistic and mirror those within the WUN network which led to the formation of its Global Africa Group.
Serendipitously for Bristol, the potential of our portfolio of Africa-related research and engagement that has resulted so far from our collective efforts was recognised by the Perivoli Foundation, which has provided the generous gift to establish PARC.