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GLOBAL: Higher education and the English question

The globally dominant English media is exporting the British-American worldview of higher education everywhere, Columbia University's Jorge Balan said in Toronto last week. And the growing use of English as the lingua franca of higher education is placing huge pressures on non-English academics while those who succeed in the mainstream may "perish locally".

But Anglo-Saxon market-driven systems do not fit easily in many non-English speaking parts of the world, and it should not be forgotten that an expanding majority of academics are now working in massive higher education systems in non-English countries.

Balan, a senior research scholar in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, was speaking in a debate at the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education held in Toronto from 16-18 June and co-hosted by University World News.

His talk focused on issues kicked up by the domination of the English language media and swelling use of English as the lingua franca of higher education.

Western media, he said, has become "literally the means through which the world learns about global higher education", which was both a source of strength - the English language media has pervasive global reach - and a weakness.

"The risk is to be a servant of a UK-US worldview of higher education. Journalists have largely been trained within that model and produce mainly for an audience that shares a similar educational background," he said, with a focus on new global markets.

But while the UK-US model is increasing in influence it is not replacing the use of other national languages in higher education. "Neither is it obliterating traditions rooted in distinctive cultural settings."

Balan stressed two points regarding higher education's adoption of English.

First, the overwhelming use of English held only, and with limitations, to the world of research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, but not to the social sciences and humanities.

In non-English speaking countries, academics in the STEM fields were pressed to publish in two or more languages, for their research to be present in the academic world and for their academic careers. "But other languages retain their primacy in dealing with the local world, including those of the local media and public policy."

In the humanities and social scientists, while researchers are increasingly bilingual or multilingual in their academic activities, they " largely publish, lecture and speak to the media in the predominant domestic language or languages". Their books were first published in national languages and only a few were later translated into English, "even very important ones". This was the case throughout the non-English world.

The second point, Balan said, was that the 'normal' English used by the media and scientific literature was different to English as a lingua franca. Some courses in, for instance, Europe were taught in English as a lingua franca, "a language more appreciated by non-native students. There is a growing academic literature on English as a lingua franca and its uses in higher education.

"There are huge variations between countries where English is not the native language. Even in those where English has become the preferred second language for academic and everyday communication, academics usually navigate through severe linguistic dilemmas not to be found in the Anglophone countries."

Balan gave Hong Kong as an example. A recent study documented that while academics in Hong Kong publish in international publications in English, they also publish in Chinese to serve local and regional audiences, "deeply aware of the difference in style and expectations, but also raising the question of how to manage dual publication issues".

Scandanavian scholars have reported the use of multiple languages in the same academic setting, but most science journals now tend to publish in English, "raising questions about the need to develop policies to promote the use of local languages in science".

On the other end of the scale, Balan offered the example of Brazil, which produces some 6,000 scientific and technical journals, the overwhelming majority of them in Portuguese and with "only a handful" registered in the International Science Citation index.

In the case of Brazil and many other countries, lack of foreign academics familiar with non-English languages limited global access to rich and complex scholarly production available in national academic journals and books.

With the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education, Balan said, academic elites throughout the non-English world have adopted English for some of their activities to be able to communicate globally or regionally within their academic field. "They often do this with great effort and at a high cost, feeling at a disadvantage when compared to native English speakers in the academic world.

"They struggle to meet the demands of international peer review systems, including standards of 'normal' English style, structure or argument and standards of relevance often defined in terms of an abstract world dominated by the concerns of editorial boards where native English speakers are usually the majority.

"English as the lingua franca may be useful regionally or across non-English speaking countries, but it is generally considered not acceptable within mainstream English language publications." Academics who succeed within the English academic mainstream, Balan added, could in the words of Lebanese sociologist Sari Hanafi, "perish locally".

In contrast, the large majority of academics and universities were working "embedded in now massive higher education systems that tend to follow inherited traditions of academics careers, built around formal credentials and seniority, and speak, teach and publish in the national language or languages".

Although many have some international experience or have studied abroad, and speak other languages such as English, there is no pressure on them to address an international audience. But in remaining relevant locally, they perish globally unless discovered by global academia and media, "in translation".

While the English language media has improved coverage of global higher education, Balan told the conference, it "suffers from a systemic bias: it assumes that internationalisation involves an inescapable trend towards the adoption of English as a normative language and that key cultural elements of the UK-US 'model' also flow with this trend".

But languages other than English are used by a rapidly growing number of people in higher education, "even if an increasing proportion of them also use the English language". And aspects of Anglo-Saxon systems, including the pervasive role of competitive markets, are less tenable in non-English speaking countries of both the developed and developing worlds.

Balan concluded by stressing the need for more and better reporting in English about higher education in the non-English world to compensate for the inability of English speaking countries to access news from the rest of the world - especially given the low priority afforded to foreign languages in which a "vibrant and very diverse academic literature is written".
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