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Connections, Collaborations and Competition

January 25, 2008

Educators in the developing world are generally trying too hard to emulate Harvard rather than replicating the diversity of the American higher education system – not only the elites but also the community colleges and regional universities – in building up their own systems, Jairam Reddy, director of the United Nationals University International Leadership Institute, in Jordan, said during a roundtable discussion this week on “International Higher Education Competitiveness” featuring representatives from four different countries.

Citing Harvard’s $35 billion endowment and the dramatic gaps in educational capacity across countries, many of which don't boast a gross national product comparable to Harvard's resources, Reddy wondered aloud what can really be meant by competitiveness. “In this kind of un-level playing field, we should move from the model of university competitiveness to university collaboration,” he said.

Collaboration was a buzzword at this week’s ConnectEd: A Conference on Global Education in Monterey, Calif. Hosted by Middlebury College and the Monterey Institute of International Studies – an affiliate of Middlebury since 2005 when Middlebury took over management of the Institute – the 2.5-day conference attracted 350 participants from 24 countries. Recurrent themes discussed include distance education and open source educational technologies, the imbalance of power in global education, curricular innovations, and, of course, competition and collaboration in terms of students, professors and resources.

Some of the specific topics touched upon:

  • Professors on a panel on international health education Wednesday explored strategies for inculcating global perspectives in students who cannot afford or otherwise could not attend semester- or year-long study abroad programs. Therese Miller, of Westminster College, in Missouri, described a one-credit, pass-fail course she developed in order to tap into the perspectives of an increasing cohort of international students on campus. The 11 international and 19 domestic students in the course responded to prompts on a discussion board and also met in groups of three (normally two domestic students and one international student) to discuss topics related to women’s health. Also at that session, Gina Marie Piane, of California State University at Long Beach, described her successful track record offering short-term study abroad programs in global health. She stressed access, and the importance of fund raising to ensure all students can attend (especially as costs for two- to three-week programs in Africa approach $4,000 per student). In response to a question about recruiting minority students, she described a few of the strategies she’s employed, including offering a short-term program in Kenya for credit in either international health or black studies.
  • Several professors at the conference presented research relative to the complex role English plays in globalization: both as a tool to facilitate connections and as a potential instrument of imperialism. For instance, Luci Moreira, who teaches Portuguese at the College of Charleston and the Middlebury Language Schools, presented her research question, “How do we, teachers, motivate American students to learn a foreign language when English is the language of commodities, of power, and of globalization?” Students, she said, have "asked me why they had to master another language if they had already mastered the most important language in the world.” While she is only in the preliminary stages of her research, she shared a few early survey responses from fellow faculty, who stressed the importance of an interdisciplinary approach.

And, in Tuesday’s keynote address, Jorge Castañeda Gutman, the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs for Mexico and a professor of political science and Latin American Studies at New York University, addressed attendees on the topic of “Global Education: An Unequal Environment.”

“The world today is a more unequal place than it was before,” Castañeda said. “The best tool for trying to reduce that inequality is education – except that it can reduce inequality as well as reproduce inequality.”

Citing continental Europe’s role in financing the build-up of Ireland’s now-thriving educational system, and of course the United States’ extensive and expensive contribution to European infrastructure in enacting the Marshall Plan ("It cost a fortune; it was money very well spent," he said), Castaneda asked a crucial question that to some degree guided the rest of his speech.

“Who pays for education in order for the goal of reducing inequality to work?”

 

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