A few weeks ago I attended the First International World Views Conference on Media and Higher Education in Toronto. A major theme of this innovative conference (to which I contributed on a panel focusing on the developing world) was “How media coverage of higher education has changed over the past two decades and where it is headed.” My thesis –more below—is that the English language media dominating the news about global higher education is biased in favor of an Anglo/American perspective. This is reflected in the poor news coverage of the massive volume of teaching and research that is carried out in languages other than English —in continental Europe, in the Arab world, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In a more subtle way, the bias is present in an implicit assumption that English is unavoidably replacing other languages—mainly in research, but also in teaching—and that the basic tenets of an Anglo-American model in higher education (mainly the role of competitive markets in guiding student, faculty, and administrative behavior) are necessarily obliterating other models built on different historical and cultural traditions.
Hardly surprising, is it? After all, as Simon Kuper says in the Financial Times, much of the global news is about a small elite, the very rich, athletes, entertainers, royals and politicians. “Only stories in English get duplicated around the world. People who write in English prefer celebrities who speak English. In Forbes magazine’s recent list of the ‘World’s Most Powerful Celebrities,’ the highest-ranked non-native-English-speaker was the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo at number 43, and even he had created his brand while playing in England” (FT, June 18/19 2011, p. 2). Mutatis mutandis. The same can be said about celebrities in the world of science and advanced study where the highest ranking institutions, programs, and people who win the big prizes, render their work in English.
The English language media—global newspapers, TV networks, news services, as well as the specialized media in higher education—seems unaware that in non-English speaking countries, despite the fact that English is increasingly relevant in the academic world and for the academic careers, national languages retain their primacy in dealing with the local world, including the national media, politics, and public policy. Researchers in the humanities and the social sciences –often bi or multilingual in their academic activities—largely publish, lecture, and speak to the media in the predominant language or languages in each nation. Books in the social sciences and the humanities are published first in national languages and very few of them get translated into English, even very important ones. Teaching, with the exception of programs addressing the needs of a truly international student body, takes place in many languages other than English. The adoption of English as a lingua franca by non-native speakers takes place in international gatherings where English is the preferred second language of most participants –but well over 90% of the courses in China, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt or Russia are still taught in the official national languages. On the other hand, while most readers of a specialized higher education media are interested in issues on the international higher education landscape—such as top universities, trends in financing, branch campuses, global policy issues, international student flows, and the like—other issues should not be neglected.
There are huge variations between countries where English is not the native language, but even where it has been adopted as the preferred second language for academic and everyday communication, academics confront dilemmas unknown in the Anglophone countries. Hong Kong is an excellent example. The adoption of English has served it well in the ranking of its universities within the Asian context. A recent study shows that publication in internationally indexed journals in the social sciences and humanities leads scholars in Hong Kong to publish in English while also publishing in Chinese to serve target local/regional audiences. The study recognizes cultural and linguistic differences in style and expectations and raises the question of how best to manage dual-language publication issues.
Scandinavian scholars report the use of multiple languages within an academic setting –even where English has become the standard language of instruction. Most science journals now tend to publish in English raising questions about the need for policies to promote the use of local languages in science. Examples on the opposite extreme are found in countries such as Turkey or Brazil, where teaching is almost exclusively conducted in the national language and where scholars in the social sciences and humanities only publish occasionally in English. The scarcity of foreign academics who handle Turkish or Portuguese effectively limits global access to the rich and complex scholarly production available in national academic journals and books. Brazil alone produces some 6,000 scientific and technical journals mostly in Portuguese, with only a handful of them registered in the International Science Citation Index!
Blogging in English is opening the international media to voices and concerns from the non-English speaking world of higher education. Blogging has been at its best in reporting on the role of students in political transitions, with the Arab spring as a primary example. Our recent blog on the WorldView about student elections in Egyptian universities, written by an Egyptian guest blogger in collaboration with a well-known American expert in student movements, is an excellent example. Blogs, unlike peer-reviewed journals with editorial boards dominated by native English speakers, may be written in non-standard (lingua franca) English. More and better reporting by the specialized higher education media in the non-English speaking countries is needed to compensate for the inability of native-English readers to access the news from the rest of the world due to the low priority that foreign languages have within higher education today and the small volume of material translated from languages in which a vibrant and very diverse academic literature is written and that (sadly) remains inaccessible to most of the world.