The importance of difference

With experience in both UK and international institutions, Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, shares his perspective on difference within the HE sector.

‘Can we with manners ask what was the difference?’ – Iachimo, in Cymbeline, Act 1 Scene 4

In April, I was lucky to attend the AHUA Spring Conference at the University of Glasgow; grateful in current circumstances to meet up in person and plug back into a network that I value greatly, especially being based overseas.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder; maybe distance does too. It was certainly good to catch up with friends and colleagues, many of whom I haven’t seen for years apart from occasionally on Teams/Zoom.

But distance also provides a different perspective; a change of focal point.

I’ve written before about some of the differences between British/Irish and international higher education (see my AHUA blogs on branch campuses and the student experience for more on this).

When I wrote those pieces I needed to tread carefully, ensuring observations didn’t slide into direct criticisms (of either system), and maintaining a balance between factual evidence and anecdotal hearsay; above all it had to be relevant to the place and preoccupations of those reading.

But there is a difficult line to toe between acknowledging difference (and of course that the readership of AHUA blogs is 99+% based in the UK and Ireland), and advocating for it. Those of you who know me – and those who heard me speak at conference – will be aware that frustrations creep in for many of us not based in those two countries, when it comes to the hegemony of lived experience in HE.

Of course it’s understandable that GDPR and data regulation in the UK is a major headache to British- and Irish-based colleagues. And that the student experience is first and foremost on many agendas. And that pension deficits and industrial action are causing significant problems. And that increased oversight and interference from regulators and governments are hitting funding and resources, not to mention morale and sustainability. All of these topics and more keep most of AHUA’s COOs/Registrars/University Secretaries/DVCs etc. up at night.

The trouble is they are not the pressing issues for COOs/Registrars/University Secretaries/DVCs etc. in the international HE sector.

Why is that important? you ask. Well, it’s important for me as I’m tasked with championing an international perspective for those of us who run university administrations. But seriously, it’s important because wherever we work there’s always a danger we get stuck in our own little bubble: inside of which everything is vital; outside of which we remain blissfully unaware.

I speak from earlier UK university experience as well, not just from being abroad for the last four years. I worked for some fifteen years at a Scottish university; it became more than a running joke how sector umbrella group meetings, Westminster government briefings, even dare I say it AHUA conferences, were always English-focused and England-centric.

So here’s an example of what I mean by this blinkering effect.

Recently a VC here in the UAE explained to me why US doctorates were preferable. He told me that for a long period (at least through the 80s and 90s) British PhDs were considered in this region to be poorly supervised and not rigorous enough; without a quantifiable teaching element they were treated as suspiciously susceptible to cheating, plagiarism and other malpractice.

I went to state primary and secondary school and did my undergrad and postgrad degrees all in the UK under the British education system. My parents were state school teachers. I live and breathe the British model and I’m unashamed to admit I held it up to be the gold standard. To hear otherwise, and to accept that my view was simply that – a personal view – was quite hard to swallow. Yet this is a fact about how a British PhD was viewed in the Middle East (this view has changed of course over time).

And there are plenty of other examples of how this hegemonic approach – whether it’s largely accidental (although sometimes wilful) – causes disquiet and even hostility internationally.

A useful demonstration here goes back to one of the sponsor sessions at our conference in Glasgow. The dire warnings from legal colleagues about increased and increasing regulation for HEIs were timely and informative. But the discussion around it was surprising in its complete concentration on a perception, on an acceptance, that this was the state of affairs for all and no leeway could, should, or would be shown.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve bounced MoUs/MoAs/contracts (even from some of our university partners!) because their legal teams have added cover-all clauses for GDPR, data protection, freedom of speech, freedom of information, equality and diversity, human rights, and so on. To be clear: not because I agree or disagree with any of these on principle, but because UK and even EU laws simply don’t hold any legal weight outwith those jurisdictions. (And, by the way, if you keep pushing your would-be international partners into agreements they cannot sign, the likelihood is we’ll just find other partners in regimes which are easier to deal with.)

It might be fine to make the student experience at the heart of everything we do, except we should appreciate that in some universities there is no student experience as it might be recognised in the UK. In many countries students’ unions/associations don’t exist (likewise trades unions for staff) and the experience the students want is to graduate with the best degree possible for the highest paid job they can get.

Again, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of this – actually I’ve made it clear in my TED talk that personally I disagree with the idea universities must create ‘job-ready’ graduates. I’m just alive to the realities and differences of working in universities in different countries, with different systems, different priorities, and different assumptions about quality, value, and mission.

So we need more flexibility and agility to work within and around different systems in international education, whether they are legal, curricula, regulatory, governmental, or even social and cultural. Somehow we need to contain multitudes, to crib Whitman.

Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s blog champion and spokesperson for international. He can be contacted at


  • David Duncan

    Good piece, Hugh. It’s important we see ourselves as others see us, to quote another poet*. Too many of our discussions reinforce commonly held opinions. You should keep challenging us! * O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us An’ foolish notion…
  • Hugh Martin

    Thanks, David. And of course it goes without saying that conversations like these are always more fruitful when they're two-way. While it may be idealistically preferable, I don't think it's realistic to aim for parity across the HE sector (even within national and regional contexts let alone international). But it does help if those conversations are based on equal mutual respect at least.

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