Internationalization is the new buzzword in higher-education circles around the world. Global conferences are held on the subject and bilateral and multilateral partnerships have been established, and many more are currently being developed. Part of the impetus for this is the international rankings, all of which use internationalization as a positive variable in their calculations. Some of this is driven by resources made available by governments who want to pursue their political and geopolitical goals through higher-education partnerships. Yet others are driven by well-intended academics and university leaders who recognize that our world is becoming smaller, our social and environmental challenges increasingly cross borders, and a new generation of global institutional relationships is required to manage our world.
Perhaps it is because of the latter that so much of this debate on internationalization is constructed on romanticized terms as if it is simply an unqualified positive development. But is this really true? The multiple voices, many from the developing world, raising concerns at the recent Going Global 2012 conference in London suggest that that there may be many self-centered relationships being initiated under the guise of internationalization. Let me demonstrate this from my own personal experience.
I am the deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation, and advancement, so the institution’s international office has reported to me over the last few years. This means that I have been centrally involved in some of our more important international engagements. Two come particularly to mind, both with leading North American universities. The first began with an approach from what I will call American University 1. It had decided to capitalize on resources made available by the U.S. government to start an educational partnership with African institutions. The partnership was to be with universities in two countries – South Africa and another on the continent – in two distinct areas in the humanities and social sciences. The institution’s president and other officials subsequently visited South Africa to negotiate and formally start the arrangement.
At a meeting with the delegation, our team listened to their presentation and then responded. We indicated our interest in the two areas they had identified, and recommended a third, one we were beginning to build in the natural sciences. We received a polite rebuff and were told that their thematic areas had been painstakingly negotiated through their faculty senate, and that it would be very difficult to consider a third. This was done with no sense of irony. After all, if their faculty leaders were required to approve thematic areas of collaboration, why would they imagine that ours would not have the same level of authority? The meeting ended, the delegation departed, and I subsequently informed one of the executives that while we would circulate their documents and be open to our academics engaging in their initiative, we would not be giving it any institutional weight or priority. Being a relatively well-resourced institution, we could afford to walk away.
The engagement with American University 2 was an altogether different experience. Here we had identified the need to undertake a capacity-building project for principals in primary and secondary schools because of a systemic need in South Africa. The matter subsequently came up in a fortuitous interaction between some academics from both our institutions, and colleagues from American University 2 expressed an interest in supporting the project. Both sets of scholars told administrators at their respective universities about the project. A series of meetings and interactions followed, including presidential visits, to establish the partnership. It was recognized that significant resources would be needed for the effort, and the fund-raising offices of both our institutions put together a team to raise the required money. This team tapped into the alumni base of both universities and donor networks in the two countries. It was agreed that the funds raised would be equally located at both institutions, but its spending would be jointly determined. Moreover, while the project would be jointly academically managed, its academic and managerial fulcrum would shift to my institution after three years given that it is a South Africa-focused program. The teaching collaboration was coupled with research that involved academics from both institutions. All in all, this was a project started in the spirit of academic equality and solidarity.
The first experience is, in my view, a transnational transaction. The second is internationalization at its best, a partnership with an intention to establish an equitable institutional relationship. The former is a business relationship driven by either a desire to tap into available resources, or at best is an expression of corporate social investment. The latter is a civic relationship undertaken in a spirit of solidarity between fellow academic institutions located in different parts of the world.
It must be noted that the former experience is not an isolated one. There is sufficient negative empirical evidence about transnational partnerships to warrant collective concern. It is well known, for instance, that study-abroad partnerships are often unequal and defined largely by one-way traffic of students. They have essentially become a means for some universities in the Global South to supplement their inadequate resources, and run the risk of skewing expenditure away from immediate institutional needs. Should we be comfortable with this, or should we be collectively thinking about ways to make this an equitable experience from which all of our students can benefit?
Similarly, should there not be a concern about many of the foreign campuses that are being established by American and European universities? Are these being established to expand the educational experience to those less fortunate? If so, can we truly say that these campuses are of equivalent academic stature to their home bases? Is it not ironic that so many public universities have established foreign campuses that operate as private entities? Can this really be held up as an example of internationalism? Or should these experiences be understood as the padding of one’s domestic balance sheet by capitalizing on the desperation of citizens in the developing world for scarce educational opportunities? Should all of this not warrant a collective rigorous ethical interrogation of current internationalization experiences?
At one of the final sessions of the Going Global 2012 conference, after these issues had been repeatedly raised, a leader of one of the top British universities stood up exasperatedly and said that we have to accept that our world is unequal and that we have mandates developed by and responsibilities to our respective governments. What was important, he remarked, was not having equitable partnerships but according respect to each other. I wondered after this whether this was code for “know your place in the hierarchy that exists, and we will pretend we equal when we engage each other.” My response to this is that you are perfectly within your rights to establish such transnational interactions. But then let us not pretend that this engagement is any more than what it is, a business relationship with an exchange of services between two institutional entities. As a result, I will treat this engagement no different from any other private-sector relationship; maximize what I get for the least cost incurred.
There is of course another way to imagine these relationships between universities. We could conceive ourselves as part of an international commons that recognizes that our challenges are increasingly global in character. We could also recognize that knowledge has no boundaries, and we are not only collectively stronger through equitable international partnerships, but these also enable us to better address the global challenges we collectively confront. We would be aware of our different contexts and mandates and relationships with our respective governments, but we would also be committed to and work within a global commons to act as advocates for getting all of our governments to understand the nature of the academy, the global challenges we collectively confront, and the importance of equitable research and institutional partnerships to address these.
This is an internationalization that I would be enamored by. It is also a partnership that I would be willing to actively participate in and canvass for because it would make me an activist in a global commons to transform our world.