International Winners and Losers

At gathering of university educators from around the world, support for collaboration remains strong, but many voice worries about the one-sided nature of many such efforts.

March 15, 2012

LONDON -- Many gatherings focused on the internationalization of higher education feature so much enthusiasm for cross-border collaboration that one expects a multinational chorus of presidents and rectors to break out in a chorus of "We Are the World."

But at this year's Going Global meeting, the annual international higher education event sponsored by the British Council for university leaders worldwide, the discussions are much more self-critical and less boosterish. A series of private discussions organized by the council have been taking place here about the directions of internationalization, with the goal of promoting frank discussion of both its positive and negative aspects. And several public sessions Wednesday (and more scheduled for Thursday) highlighted the worry that too many efforts have primarily favored universities in the West, while doing little to promote long-term advances for those in developing nations.

Citing Africa as an example, Hans de Wit said that one could say that its universities are clearly experiencing the internationalization of higher education. But that means that many of its best students and scholars are recruited out of Africa, and Western advisers come in to tell African educators what to do to make their institutions more like those in the West. "That's not real internationalization," but is imposing a Western (and Western-benefiting) approach, said de Wit, a professor of the internationalization of higher education at the University of Applied Sciences, in Amsterdam, and director of the Center for Higher Education Internationalization, at the Catholic University of Sacro Cuore, in Milan.

And it's not just developing nations' universities that are being poorly served, he argued. Around the world in such efforts, "we don't listen to the student voice. We don't listen to the faculty voice."

Eva Egron-Polak, secretary-general of the International Association of Universities, introduced one discussion here by saying that having a broad discussion of the pros and cons of internationalization did not suggest that there are not substantial benefits. Internationalization "can improve the curriculum, and lead to stronger and more relevant research," and can "lead to a better understanding among peoples," she said.

But she noted that most academics could probably come up with that list (and other reasons) fairly easily. The "risks" of an international focus for higher education "are less well-known" and need more attention, she said.

Egron-Polak's association, she said, regularly surveys university leaders on these issues. And she noted that those surveys have found consistent concerns about the impact of internationalization, including "the increased commercialization of higher education," "the arrival of or creation of poor quality providers" in developing nations, "the persistent issue of brain drain," and the "exclusion" of some groups from the benefits of higher education's global connections.

The comments by Egron-Polak and others here didn't suggest that these down-side issues mean that universities should somehow become isolationist, and most suggested that would be impossible. But the comments suggested that by failing to examine these issues -- even as universities embrace their global nature -- there is a danger of internationalization being distrusted (perhaps for good reason) in much of the world.

De Wit said that he welcomed the idea of internationalization being not only simply study abroad or recruiting foreign students, but also a way of thinking about higher education in a global context. But he added that universities show "a lack of attention to ethics, norms and values in international education," explaining that "we seem to be taking too much, and we don't look at the ethics of rankings or brand campuses, or use of agents to recruit students."

This is actually a major week for rankings. Times Higher Education today releases its latest "reputation" rankings (the subject of plenty of gossip here). U.S. News & World Report just released its graduate school rankings (the subject of a barrage of press releases from American universities).

In this environment, one of the most powerful statements made Wednesday -- one that prompted a few educators near this reporter who were checking their smart phones to lift their heads up -- came from Goolam Mohamedbhai, former secretary general of the Association of African Universities and former vice chancellor of the University of Mauritius. His statement was that an outstanding internationalized university in the developing world "would not aspire to be a world-class university or being globally ranked -- as these would be irrelevant" to its real mission in serving people.

Universities need to be judged on whether they are helping their country's citizens, whether they are bridging class divides or enlarging them, whether they are open to all parts of society, he said.

Too much discussion of topics such as branch campuses, he said, is from the perspective of the Western university setting up a campus, not the host country. Why aren't people asking, Mohamedbhai said, whether these campuses are "a threat to cultural values of the host country"? Why aren't they asking whether these branches are making profits that go back to the main campus? "Are the fees of students from the developing world being used to finance the developed institution?"

Some experts on international education have long questioned whether all countries should aspire to build universities to meet (Western) world-class standards, but the bluntness of Mohamedbhai's comments seemed to jar people here.

Noting the spread of branch campuses, he said, "these must be lucrative institutions."

Remarking that efforts in Europe to coordinate higher education are called "harmonization," Mohamedbhai said that when it comes to the developing world "homogenization" may be a better word. English is increasingly the lingua franca of higher education, but no one talks about how English "is replacing national languages," he said.

Such critiques have been made before -- particularly by advocates for developing nations and their universities. But at this year's Going Global, these sorts of critiques were front and center.

Another topic that was featured prominently (more than in many past such discussions) was the profit motive. Madeleine Green, a senior fellow at the International Association of Universities and at NAFSA: The Association of International Educators, spoke about the range of motives behind internationalization efforts. Today, she said, many educators believe, appropriately, that "being a world-class university means not being parochial."

But today, the reality is that many universities see international efforts as a way to attract "revenue to balance their budgets." She didn't suggest that this motivation made their agendas necessarily bad, but she said it was time to talk about this reality. "What does it mean when different stakeholders in an international effort or a country have such different motivations?"


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