Reading: Internationalisation

Our latest assigned reading for our Teaching and Learning unit was several sources looking at ‘internationalisation’ and the way higher education has come to be viewed as an export. We were given four sources and asked to read two of them and respond to three questions. I read three in the end, Vision 20:20: Forecasting International Student Mobility: A UK Perspective. Report by the British Council,  then a 2011 paper by Uwe Brandenburg and Hans De Wit and a 2011 article in the Guardian by Peter Scott. The questions we were asked to consider were; Firstly, if higher education is an export, what are we exporting? Secondly, what should we be exporting? And thirdly what does that second question assume about our aims/purposes (or those of higher education)?

First of all, if higher education is an export what are we exporting?

Considering the focus of the Vision 20:20 report there is actually surprisingly little about what exactly it is we are exporting through internationalisation. The report initially discusses the benefits of an international focus for UK institutions including improvements to their learning culture, the greater variety of courses that can be made available to home students, and obvious cash injection that overseas students provide. There is also interesting reflection on changing demographics of overseas students in the UK, from Greek students as the top group (27,000) in 1998 to Chinese students (32,000) in 2003, perhaps reflecting changing geopolitics and economics. The report is primarily concerned with how the UK higher education sector can maintain it’s overseas profile and mitigate risks and changes in the field, including the growth of transnational education (i.e. overseas teaching), new technologies (which the report says are yet to be fully exploited) and the changing aspirations of international students themselves. The report forecasts a few different scenarios for how these things will change, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic and also considers changes relating to particular issues like the UK’s relationship with Europe (clearly dating it, there is no discussion of Brexit). Beyond practical benefits however there is little discussion of what exactly it is we export through these practices and no critique of the practice of internationalisation itself.

By contrast in Brandenburg and De Wit’s paper they argue the explosion of internationalisation in universities has not kept pace with questioning of the ‘why and wherefore’ of these practices. They see distinct parallels with the notion of globalisation in the same time frame. It is argued that the two are in fact closely related, with internationalised higher education regarded as a globally tradeable commodity (somewhat echoing Collini’s ideas about a global multiversity). But just as globalisation was sometimes uncritically heralded as a means to prosperity, peace and international understanding by advocates in the post-Cold War era, for Brandenburg and De Wit there has been too much rhetoric about internationalisation from it’s acoyltes and not nearly enough cold scrutiny of the claims made for it. Brandenburg and De Wit also argue that internationalisation, far from being the progressive agenda it once was, has become part of the dogma of HE, and its proponents have gone from relative radicals to conservative defenders of tradition.

Writing in the Guardian, Scott argues that ‘Internationalisation is a clumsy word used to describe a wide range of activities, some of which we should be very proud of, and others best left in the shadows.’ Scott particularly objects to ‘managerial-bureaucratic initiatives to “internationalise” the university’ and argues that universities have always been international instituions (a claim one might question in light again of Collini’s argument that universities have always been in flux and that such generalisations are therefore unhelpful). Scott argues that we are less concerned with what we are exporting than our desire for cash ‘The bad aspects, sadly, are the mainstream drivers of internationalisation. First is the pressure to recruit international students, almost entirely because they can be charged higher fees.’ This includes uncritical relationships between the HE sector and countries and governments with poor human rights records, for example China. Scott’s message seems to be that what we are often doing through the rush to internationalise is exporting the message that we value money above principles.

Next, what should we be exporting?

As previously stated, the Vision 20:20 report seems more preoccupied with practicalities and perceptions than anything as ideological as this question implies. The report views internationalisation and higher education through the prism of a market, and in terms of adjustments to what we export it’s prime concern appears to be that universities appeal to this international market rather than meet an ideological informed notion of the purpose of international university education. Universities need to anticipate changing desires amongst international students and changing economic situations, not attempt to act as beacons for certain ideas about how the world, or education, ought to be.

Again in contrast Brandenburg and De Wit argue for a review of internationalisation practices and a move towards what they call a ‘post-internationalisation age’. For them this means moving away from the dogmatic, conservative practice of internationalisation which has developed in higher education, and replacing this with a new stance that views this practice as a means to an end rather than a goal in itself. This means critically asking why we internationalise and what benefits it really provides to students, staff and institutions. It also means reassessing the value of different forms of international exchange, and acknowledging that some practices and programs are more useful than others.

Turning to Scott, he advocates internationalisation’s ‘potential to transform the lives of international students; its role in sustaining, and growing, science and scholarship through vigorous academic exchanges; and its potential to build social and economic capacity’. However he also makes the point that some of these things occur more or less easily in the current climate, writing that ‘the first of these will always endure. But the second nowadays often seems a contingent effect of other, less wholesome, objectives; while the third, I fear, is dwindling into insignificance.’ Echoing his earlier comments on human rights, Scott also seems to view internationalisation as a way to export a certain ideological agenda, but also fundamentally sees universities as a national endeavour, ‘founded and funded with national purposes in mind’ who should have their core priorities focused on their home countries.

Lastly, what does the prior question assume about our aims and purposes for higher education?

The Vision 20:20 report basically presents a market led view of higher education. I am reading between the lines somewhat when I summarise it this way, but the report could be seen to be arguing that changes should only be made to mitigate risks and maximise profit, not in order to have any sort of ideological influence in the world (which might after all make the former aims harder). Analysis for example of the changing numbers of undergraduates and post-graduates have nothing to do with the question of why and when people choose to study, but rather the report argues are ‘important for a number of reasons, including decisions regarding allocation of international marketing resources, as well as influencing how an institution or country perceives or would like to perceive itself internationally’ [p.25]. This is interesting given the British Council’s origins and history, although clearly though even such an apolitical stance on higher education is itself political, and ties in neatly with criticisms made by the paper of the next two authors.

Brandenburg and De Wit clearly see internationalisation as a concept which carries as much problematic baggage as it’s more politically unpopular partner, globalisation. They call for a movement away from the concept, arguing that ‘what we need are people who understand and define their role within a global community, transcending the national borders, and embracing the concepts of sustainability—equity of rights and access, advancement of education and research, and much more.’ While they call for is familiar, and echoed by many advocates of internationalisation what is telling is their view that the dogmas and ideologies this practice brings with it in fact end up standing in the way of a great deal of the things they are supposed to enable.

Finally turning to Scott again, the view that universities might be used as a form of ideological soft power, or a carrot to engage states towards better human rights records is an interesting one. As the LSE relationship with the Gadaffi regime indicates, these relationships can also become a public relations fig leaf for unpleasant regimes, and can enable and train people who may ultimately return to support and maintain those same regimes. In either case this view makes certain assumptions about culture and knowledge as a component of propaganda, rather recalling the view of initiatives like the BBC and particularly the World Service during the twentieth century, or the purpose of the education system in the context of the British empire, as a tool to educate a foreign ruling caste in a particular set of ‘British’ values. One could argue this is no less problematic than the pretence of apoliticism one finds in the Vision 20:20 report. In all Scott seems conflicted between on the one hand a view of universities as a national utility, and therefore which should have a national focus, and on the other hand viewing them as a form of soft power for influencing other countries.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer.

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