International higher education

UMUC faculty were unhappy with president before she was placed on leave

At U. of Maryland University College, often held up as a model institution, faculty expressed concerns about president's leadership long before she was placed on leave last week.

Study: Affirmative action in India widens achievement gap

Affirmative action study at one of India's best universities finds that those from disadvantaged groups don't catch up.

Duke scales back plans for first program at China campus

Months after faculty members voted down plan to charge foreign students U.S. tuition for program entirely abroad, a scaled-back program wins approval.

Report urges colleges to be more strategic on international ties


Report encourages colleges to be more strategic about international mission -- and suggests principles to guide activities in countries that do not share democratic values.

Greece scraps ‘academic asylum’ laws to curb abuse

State repeals ban against police on campus after reports of criminal activity.

A Tale of Two Colleges

Missouri State U. and Westminster College have taken different routes to increasing their international enrollments.

The Non-Revolution

For let Philosopher and Doctor preach
Of what they will, and what they will not — each
Is but one Link in an eternal Chain
That none can slip, nor break, nor over-reach.
—Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald)

The overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian rulers, following widespread demonstrations for regime change — subsequently spreading from Algeria to Yemen, as well as to Libya, Syria, Jordan, and Bahrain — has raised hopes for a new political dawn across the Arab region. Likened to a "volcano" by some observers, protest movements call for new forms of citizenship and for the establishing of new bases of state legitimacy. Commentators refer to a long overdue "political spring." Others invoke the notion of a "renaissance" or a renewed "Arab awakening." Others, still, refer to a watershed of "revolutions" ushering in new forms of politics, attuned to questions of human rights and public participation. In response, reform initiatives have been frenetically introduced by ruling elites in their attempts to contain and navigate the ensuing legitimacy crisis.

At this juncture, one wonders, how do the unfolding political upheavals across the Arab region and the reform initiatives introduced by besieged ruling elites affect state–higher education relations more particularly?

Higher Education and Regime Legitimacy

Higher education institutions in the Arab region play a key role in upholding a regime's self-projected image of benevolent rule. They provide access to educational credentials to younger generations of high school graduates, particularly those who originate from less-established socioeconomic strata and who desperately seek entry into structurally confined labor markets. Equally, they secure stable civil-service jobs to academics and intellectuals, affiliated with the middle and middle-upper classes. The latter represent a mounting political force, disposed to engage a range of political ideologies not always aligned with regime orthodoxy. Not least, they offer ruling elites a space from which they can recruit or co-opt state ministers, senior professional cadres, and policymakers from among the professoriate.

Ruling elites regulate appointments to leadership positions within higher education institutions. Some "reforms" were undertaken in view of limiting faculty and student participation in governance and containing opposition groups. For instance, in Egypt, Law 142 of 1994 added deans to the list of senior university officials who are appointed by the minister of higher education.

Consequently, university councils included members who were largely ministerial appointees, with little (if any) space left for nonappointed voices, such as faculty members and students.

Contradictory or Complimentary Policy Agendas

The state’s involvement in the political subordination of higher education occurs alongside policies that seek to realign higher education with labor market "needs," through increased accountability and economic liberalization, in an attempt to foster innovative academic and administrative leadership capacities and improve governance. Egypt’s Higher Education Enhancement Project (funded by the World Bank), and Syria’s Quality University Management and Institutional Autonomy framework (as part of the European Union’s Tempus Project) are pertinent examples. Policymakers also invoke the low ranking of universities on international university lists as an additional "evidence" to justify higher education restructuring.

Thus, political subordination and economic liberalization feed on each other. On the one hand, the state’s political subordination of higher education institutions subverts the emergence of an authentic academic leadership and emphasizes authoritarian modes of decision making. On the other hand, reforms seeking to promote the economic contributions of higher education introduce layers of accountability and new conditions of academic work, without ensuring academic freedom or questioning existing authoritarian modes of governance.

Viewed as part of the building of a so-called "Arab knowledge society," liberalization reforms (part of fiscal restructuring schemes) introduce new forms of higher education provision — such as private, international, and for-profit institutions, in an attempt to create alternative options to state-sponsored higher education. This has been the case, for instance, in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council states — differences between these contexts notwithstanding.

Ruling elites and policymakers reconcile these ostensibly contradictory policy discourses by limiting discussions on higher education to issues associated with "human capital." Emphasis is placed on measurable indicators of higher education performance, in terms of engaging labor markets, employability, and economic returns of graduates. At the same time, the political contexts under which higher education institutions may best thrive are neglected.

Thus, questions pertaining to faculty and student participation in higher education governance, and their effects on the fostering of a research culture, are left entirely unattended — fueling resentment, alienation, and
disillusionment in relation to the state and higher education institutions alike. The subordination of higher education institutions further erodes the public respectability these institutions have traditionally enjoyed. It also lays bare — as sociologist M’hammed Sabour has shown in The Ontology and Status of Intellectuals in Arab Academia and Society — the marginality of the academic, who very often lacks the capacity "to speak truth to power" from within institutional platforms without risking the regime’s retaliation and reprisal.

With an overwhelming reliance of the Arab state on foreign consultancies and imported know-how, higher education institutions are further limited in their capacity to productively engage development challenges or contribute to the indigenization of knowledge through viable context-based approaches to research — particularly in the fields of the social sciences and education.

Paradoxically, while the restructuring reforms preceding the current wave of regime contestation have expanded higher education opportunities beyond recognition, often over quite a brief period of time, these reforms have nonetheless exposed the reliance of both the state and higher education institutions on precarious visions of modernity and globalization.

Reconstructing Higher Education From Within

It is not yet clear what configurations of state higher education relations would emerge out of the current political contestation. Nor is it clear whether and how the contestation witnessed so far would affect higher education governance more particularly. What is clear, however, is that for the generative capacities of higher education to flourish, both the state and civil-society groups and movements must recognize that the political, cultural, and economic roles of higher education institutions cannot be approached separately.

What is equally clear is that academics need to turn their research tools inward, by critically unpacking the foundations of the higher education structures in which they work and by critically reflecting on their implication with state power. Such a critical engagement would help reclaim not only the centrality of academic work in development but would also connect the academic workplace with community engagement and social transformation.

The prospects of this reclaiming are not solely contingent on governance reforms for greater faculty and student participation or on the overthrowing of despotic regimes, as important as these are. These outlooks are primarily contingent on the arduous struggle of academics involved in building an inclusive "knowledge culture" and in constructing a knowing self for whom the "capacity to aspire" and the capacity to differ are inalienable rights, which no regime nor other forms of power can "slip, nor break, nor overreach."


Off the Beaten Path

Small liberal arts colleges find more success recruiting students in Myanmar than in countries that send far more students to the U.S.

Who Is Global?

At gathering of fund-raisers, university presidents consider how their institutions' missions, donors and governance are evolving.

Should Our Students Study Chinese?

As major participants and drivers in the process of globalization, Americans have a remarkable ambivalence about the rest of the world. We want to be engaged, loved, respected -- and obeyed. We seek collaboration, but on our terms. We embrace the international difference that most closely resembles ourselves: English speaking, Western European, or Latin American. We speak glowingly of international travel and study abroad, but most of us seek out places that approximate our home environment.  

Our colleges and universities encourage study abroad, develop internationalization initiatives, and welcome international students, but American students and faculty flee from the serious study of languages other than English. We teach the literature of our international trading partners in translation because so few of our students can read anything of substance in someone else’s language. And, as we usually do in American academic circles, we worry about all this a lot.

The Institute for International Education publishes statistics and reports through its Open Doors series that give us a picture of how we engage our global colleagues. The good news is that more and more students study and travel abroad than ever before, most students understand that their future requires an engagement with the greater world outside our borders, and just about every college and university has some kind of international commitment in its curriculum.  

The bad news is that few students take foreign languages and few institutions require them to do so.  Only literature, history, and other area-studies specialists show any interest in the deep understanding made possible through immersion in language, and the numbers of students in these majors does not appear to be rising. Although everyone recognizes that our national security and prosperity demand experts with full proficiency and cultural literacy in a wide range of thinly taught languages, we find neither the national funding nor the student interest in developing these skills.  

Often, our leaders in business and industry tell us how important international expertise has become, but they frequently hire well educated native speakers to lead their overseas operations, and offer little or no premium to American managers who have particular language skills. Our students, observing the career paths of highly successful people, learn quickly that while the business world values international travel and living experience, it sees only modest benefit from in-depth understanding of a specific language or culture.  

Indeed, specialists in language and culture often fear relegation to mid-level corporate niches while their generalist colleagues move around the company in different jobs in different places, advancing quickly up the corporate ladder. Even our State Department, charged with the obligation of keeping the country tuned to our global relationships, rotates Foreign Service officers from post to post, producing globally aware individuals with great breadth and minimal cultural and linguistic depth.

NAFSA, an organization of international student and study abroad advisers, published a Report of the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad. As I read it, I am not sure what to make of it. It calls for us to increase study abroad opportunities and asserts that language proficiency matters, but it recognizes that most students want to go where people speak English or where the U.S. already has significant cultural and historical familiarity (Europe and Latin America).

It calls for more engagement but notes that most students want to participate in semester programs rather than yearlong programs.  It celebrates a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking study abroad opportunities but finds the numbers too small to meet the need.

Here, as in other reports of similar nature on different topics, we have a worthy objective presented by people who have the right idea and a clear sense of what we should do. At the same time, we have universities and colleges that cannot drive their students to study a language to any degree of proficiency, who cannot enforce any form of required international curriculum, and who squirm uncomfortably as they argue that a semester of study abroad will produce globally competitive leaders.

Perhaps our students and their employers are telling us something we do not want to hear. Maybe language and culture are much less important for global success than the subject competence that adds value to a business or a product. Maybe they know that only those who make language and culture their major area of study can approximate the abilities and skills of an ordinary educated native speaker.

Maybe they recognize that the years of study needed to acquire foreign language fluency in America will yield much less future income than similar effort invested in accounting, finance, physics, computer science or legal studies.

It is not what we want to hear, we internationalists, we specialists in language and area studies, we culture vultures who live and breathe the dramatic variety of the world’s people.  It is not what we want to hear, but when our students’ behavior overwhelmingly fails to match our beliefs, we probably should listen more carefully.

John V. Lombardi
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