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Internationalization and Global Responsibility*
May 14, 2012 - 9:39pm

With ever-growing internationalization in higher education, an issue that is gaining increasing importance is how higher education institutions take into account their global responsibility when they undertake their internationalization activities.  

There is first the issue of cross-border higher education, delivered in its myriad forms and mostly from the developed to the developing world. There is no doubt that cross-border education is helping developing countries to meet their growing and unmet demand for skilled manpower. However, the questions that arise are: Does the education delivered meet the development needs of the host country? Do the foreign institutions complement or compete with existing public institutions in the host country, or even weaken the latter because of its ability to attract better qualified staff and students? Does it create a greater social divide between the rich who can pay high fees and the poor who cannot? Is the operation a purely commercial one, with little regard to quality or accreditation, especially as in many instances the host country may not have a quality assurance agency? Does it pose a threat to the cultural values of the host county?  All these are issues of global responsibility that challenge higher education institutions in their delivery of cross-border education.  

There is also the issue of whether the international branch campuses of public institutions in the developed world operate as for-profit or not-for-profit institutions in the developing world. These must be lucrative ventures, since it is estimated that there are at present no less than 200 international branch campuses worldwide, and that about 40 new ones are due to open over the next two years. Are the profits generated from the operation of a branch campus ploughed back into the development of that campus, or are they used to subsidize the operation of the home institution? If the latter, then it is the fees of students in the developing world that are being used to finance the home institution. Is that fair? 

With regard to academic mobility, Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is one of the regions having the largest number of outbound students, many of whom do not return, while it receives a negligible number of international students. Similarly, a large number of African academics leave to work in universities in the developed world and they often have to be replaced by foreign academics at huge costs. The resulting brain drain invariably has a negative impact on Africa’s development and benefits the receiving countries. But if students and staff are attracted by quality educational opportunities abroad, which they cannot find locally, can academic mobility be really controlled? How can global responsibility be exercised in such cases?

Internationalization is bringing about a certain degree of homogenization in higher education, albeit under the cover of harmonization. English is being increasingly used to replace national languages. Higher education systems and degree structures are being harmonized without much consideration to their local relevance. The Bologna Process in Europe and the creation of the European Higher Education Area is a typical example. The same approach is now being replicated in other regions of the world. In Africa, for example, almost all the Francophone countries have embarked on what is known as the LMD (Licence-Maitrise-Doctorat) reform, in essence following the same footsteps as France in implementing the Bologna Process. While there are similarities between the French and Francophone African higher education systems, important political, social, structural and cultural differences equally exist. Africa should not simply adopt the Bologna Process in creating its own higher education space, but rather adapt the approaches used to fit the African context.  There is also the danger that North-South harmonization in higher education can make it easier for graduates from developing countries to emigrate, thus exacerbating brain drain.   

Research is vital for development and all global statistics clearly indicate that the research output from developing countries is negligible compared to that of the developed world, Africa being the region with the least output. Internationalization can be an important tool for promoting research. Most African universities have several research partnerships with universities in Europe or USA, usually funded by development or donor agencies. In most cases, however, the partnership is not only initiated but is also subsequently managed by the university in the North. Often, the research undertaken does not address the real developmental problems in Africa but is guided by priorities established by the university in the North or the funding agency.  Also, the aim is frequently to have the research results published in internationally refereed journals, which means that the end users rarely benefit from the findings. In all their research collaboration with universities in developing counties, higher education institutions in the North must therefore ensure that the priority areas of research are determined by the institution in the South, that the findings are owned by the institution where the research is undertaken and are widely disseminated to key stakeholders, and that the process leads to capacity building. This should be part of their global responsibility. 

Although the above has considered internationalization from a perspective of universities in the North, it is important for universities in the South to also have an internationalization strategy that is regionally and globally responsive. What then should be the characteristics of an internationalized university in the developing world? It should first have a well-structured and adequately funded internationalization unit, strongly supported at the highest level of management. It should have a reasonable number of full-time international students, especially regional ones, and also student exchange programs of short duration with universities in other countries. It should offer its students options for studying several international languages. Its academic staff should comprise some regional or international staff. Most of its postgraduate programs should be run in collaboration with foreign universities, in order to build capacity. It should be active in research of local relevance and many of its research activities should be undertaken through partnerships with other universities, funded through international grants. It should ensure that its programs are accredited locally or regionally, and that while its curricula are locally relevant, they also incorporate an international dimension. Promoting sustainable development, nationally and globally, should guide all activities. Its staff and students should fully utilize ICT so that they are in touch with the latest regional and international developments. Its strategy should be to be locally active, regionally responsive and globally connected. Finally, it should not aspire to becoming a world-class university, nor should it be interested in being globally ranked, as these would be irrelevant to its mission. 



* This article is based on a verbal presentation made by the author at the Going Global 2012 Conference organized by the British Council, London, 13-15 March 2012 


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