Dean Forbes



Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)

Flinders University

This paper was first delivered at a session on “The University Consortium as a Multinational Strategy for Promoting Internationalization” at the NAFSA 57th Annual Conference in Seattle, 29 May-3 June 2005.  A revised version of the paper was presented in a session on “International University Consortia: A Strategic Tool for Internationalisation” at the 18th Annual Conference of the European Association for International Education, Basel, 13-16 September 2006

In this presentation I want to take the opportunity to reflect on what we have achieved in the INU since 1998.  I will focus on a brief history of the INU, and follow this with a critical assessment of what we achieved in the pursuit of one of the several objectives of the INU.


The initial idea for what was to become the INU was born on an aircraft flying between Perth and Adelaide (Australia), in a conversation between two of the heavy-weights in Australian universities – Ian Chubb, who was at the time Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University, and Michael Osborne, Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University.

They shared a vision about increased access by students to the knowledge available in other universities, either by

•    Increased student mobility

•    Access through electronic means

Discussions about what this meant often were illustrated by mention of Japanese law.  If law students in Australia, for instance, needed to have some understanding of the basics of the Japanese legal system, would it not be more efficient to access expertise in Japan rather than try to establish and sustain the expertise on campus.  The INU would facilitate this either through the enhanced mobility of students or through electronic delivery of course materials.

An initial meeting between a small group of staff from Flinders and LaTrobe occurred over an extended Thai lunch at the Lemongrass Restaurant in Melbourne to identify the specific objectives, which centred on internationalising the curriculum available to students.

Invitations were sent out to 14 universities to gauge their interest in the network: three in North America, four in Asia, and seven in Europe.  In the event, 11 expressed an interest in the INU and so during meetings at Brighton in the UK, and Kunming in China, the key objectives and structures were fleshed out.

It was decided that the INU governance structure should be centred on a Council, in which each university is represented, and would meet each year, and an elected Executive which would also meet once per year.

Nine universities participated in the inaugural Council meeting of the INU in Santiago de Compostela, Spain in 1999.  Ian Chubb, then Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University, was elected the inaugural president of the INU, and he was succeeded by Michael Osborne (Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University) in 2001. 

While in Santiago de Compostela we were privileged to be able to attend a ceremony for the formal award of an honorary doctorate.  It was a very traditional ceremony held in a very old building.  I remember thinking at the time, how are we going to bring together universities this steeped in tradition with the more contemporary universities represented by, for example, Flinders and La Trobe?

Looking back through the records of the INU meetings, there have been a range of issues that have been the consistent focus of attention.  These include routine issues, such as those concerning governance, membership and resourcing.  Initiatives to facilitating greater  levels of student mobility, for example through scholarships and funding support.  And workshops on international issues relevant to the member universities.

There have also been various spinoff activities, or at least activities facilitated by the existence of the INU.  These have included the establishment of the IEN consortium in China, ideas about the Innovative Research Universities Australia network, and joint bidding for funds from European Union - Australia  student mobility grants.


In the next part of my presentation, I want to shift my focus to one of the objectives of the INU, and that was to support the internationalisation of university curricula by giving students electronic access to subjects taught in partner universities.

This was a strong interest of Flinders University at the time, and something that intrigued (I use the word advisedly) all the members of INU, but to different degrees.  A seminal event for me was a presentation to the INU group by Dennis Aebersold, of the College of William and Mary, on on-line teaching and learning, at the Brighton planning meeting in 1998.  It gave momentum to the drive to allow students in INU universities to participate in on-line subjects in each other’s university.

A great deal of effort went into designing the architecture of such an arrangement for on-line learning including the choice of software, the subjects to be offered (reflecting the strengths of the individual universities), the language of instruction, and the complexities of  different semester dates and the timing of delivery.

Having been stimulated by what could be achieved by on-line learning, I became one of the main facilitators (though battering ram may be a more apposite term) to try and put this in place.  I had adapted my main undergraduate subject to on-line delivery by 1999, and had become a passionate advocate of the value of on-line learning supporting traditional face-to-face deliveryi, particularly for classes involving a mixture of national and international students. I believed that on-line learning helped level the playing field, by allowing students without a native English-speaking background the opportunity to interact with course material in written form as well as through the oral engagement in the seminars, which were the core of the subject.  International students, I realised, were more likely to pro-actively express opinions and answer questions in an on-line discussion forum than they were in an open seminar situation.

However, we made very little progress at all in achieving the on-line objective of INU.  Our main failing was that our goals were over-ambitious.

There were technology barriers: I can vividly recall two occasions, in Kunming and Santiago de Compestela, where, being about to start a demonstration, I found the network was down (across Yunan), or simply unable to cope with my needs (Santiago).

We underestimated the complexity of interaction between diverse institutions, including the language skills of staff and students, internal rigidities within the management structures of the respective universities, and the different visions of what each university was trying to achieve.

There was a lack of sufficient follow-through (not enough doggedness) and the resourcing for the initiative was far too minimal.  For instance, there were no employed staff to support the INU at that time.


Despite the slow overall progress of the initiative, the INU had a very significant impact on Flinders University, in terms of the development of its on-line learning activities, and this in turn has had an important impact on the internationalisation of the campus.

The initial INU demand re-directed the implementation of on-line learning.  A Design Advisory Group (DAG) was established in 1998 to prepare 20 subjects for INU access, and this same DAG group continues to this day to drive our on-line learning.  Eg:  choice of platform (WebCT) and the development agenda

The focus on on-line learning has had an impact on the internationalisation of the campus.  I can illustrate with two examples.

First, off campus international students came to use the on-line subjects at a proportionately faster rate than on-campus students.  This was especially significant for classes that were being taught more or less at the same time in two or more different locations.  An example of this is the Flinders Bachelor of Nursing program, the first year of which can be undertaken in Norway, before students transfer to Adelaide.  WebCT sites were established in Oslo and Adelaide, and students spontaneously started to communicate with one another using the discussion tool.  When the student arrived in Adelaide to start their second year, they were familiar with many of the local students enrolled in the course.

Second, the adoption of WebCT in subjects induced a shift in the dialogue and other interaction between Australian and international students on-campus.  A change in teaching styles occurred with the introduction of more seminar-based activity, backed up by access to on-line information and subject materials, and this enabled more time to be put into engaging students in class.  International students, while sometimes hesitant to engage in dialogue with others because of their lack of confidence in English, engaged enthusiastically in on-line Discussion forums, and this, in turn improved the quality of spoken dialogue.

The final point I want to make is that the process of on-line learning at Flinders is re-engaging with developments in the INU.  We seeming to be coming full circle.  A link between Flinders and Hiroshima National University, which is also a member of INU, has developed.  An Hiroshima staff member, was on-campus for a year in 2005 to explore aspects of mutual interest in on-line teaching and learning.  Flinders and Hiroshima are benchmarking what is being done in the two universities.  We each have contrasting methods of implementing on-line education, with Hiroshima more focussed on technology, and Flinders on the ‘soft’ aspects of usage.  We therefore are learning from the strengths of the other.  And we are doing research into cultural differences in student approaches to on-line learning, based on the Hiroshima and Flinders experience.

This work is a precursor to the next step, which will be the “sharing of learning objects”.


While we did not succeed in achieving the first goal that we set for the network, the following presentations will talk about some of the real achievements of the INU.

However, it is also important to realise that the real benefits that the INU has delivered have been unintended, and have included the driving of innovation in on-line learning.  This facilitated the achievement of perhaps the most important of our very first goals, which was to increase the internationalisation of the student experience.

And the lessons learned during the formative years of the INU?

•    Think carefully about the criteria for choosing the universities invited to join the network

•    Understand the level of commitment each of the universities will have to the INU

•    Be wary of the difficulty of building complex links between large numbers of universities (the KISS principle)

•    Be flexible and alert to the unplanned benefits of the network


Sternberger, Lee 2005 “Partnering for success” International Educator, July-August, pp 12-21.