Differing global view points
In a recent post I offered some comments on views about internationalisation’s mid-life crisis. Reports of two other recent conferences in Canada offer different perspectives on the globalisation of higher education. First, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education has a report on its Global Forum which took place in Vancouver:
The overall theme was ‘Levelling the international playing field’ which, for our purposes, was expressed in the rise of new countries in international higher education and transnational education (TNE), the rise of private providers, the use of immigration controls in traditional education-export countries (which makes the new national players comparatively more attractive), and in how HE is applied as a policy tool for social and economic goals and in national development strategies.
In his welcome remarks, Observatory Director William Lawton sounded a few cautionary notes. He reminded participants that in spite of global and borderless ideals, senior scholars from Iran, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo were absent from their number because they could not get visas to enter Canada. He further noted that while economic and political power were hurtling eastwards, the ‘international playing field’ was still well short of level for poor countries and regions.
‘Mathabo Tsepa, Lesotho’s High Commissioner to Ottawa, kicked off proceedings with an inspirational and moving account of the transformative power of higher education in her country. She and Daniel Schwirtz, an engineering postgraduate at the University of British Columbia, recounted the role of students who participated in a sanitation and clean water project in rural Lesotho.
Joseph Duffey, Senior Vice-President of Laureate International Universities and a former senior official with three US Presidents, spoke of the casual uses of the word ‘globalisation’ and suggested that the nature of public diplomacy had moved on from its roots in ‘winning hearts and minds’. Duffey noted the difference between building branch campuses and working with other countries as partners. The implication was the emergence of new models, as expressed by the Liverpool-Laureate partnership through which Laureate makes the university’s programmes available online and provides personal student support.
At a separate conference, this time in Toronto, reported in the Times Higher Education, a strikingly different view was offered:
Powerful public universities are manipulating the “desperation of people whose university systems [have been] completely demolished” to make a “fortune” from overseas branch campuses, a senior university leader has claimed.
Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor of research, innovation and advancement at the University of Johannesburg, told a conference in Toronto on 16 June that on a recent tour of American universities, he was struck by how many were setting up campuses overseas.
“I was struck by how many really manipulate the desperation of people whose university systems are completely demolished and utilise that opportunity to make a fortune so that they can pad the balance sheets,” he said.
Professor Habib said that this was “not simply an American problem”, but one that afflicted all unequal relationships across and inside continents. He pinned the blame on the move away from state support for higher education around the world.
What are we to make of these very different perspectives? First, the overall picture remains a very messy and confused one. Lots of universities are engaged in a wide range of transnational partnership activities at varying levels of intensity. Secondly, there are major national interests at play here; it’s not just one way traffic and many countries are seeking rapidly to develop their HE systems with international support. Thirdly, while there may be some institutions seeking to establish branch campuses purely for financial gain it is questionable whether such a mission is sustainable or indeed whether there is really money to be made from such activity in the way suggested here. International partnership activity can be a genuine force for good and should be seen as a serious long term mutually beneficial arrangement rather than a vehicle for making a quick buck.