On 5 April, a large group of colleagues, students and friends gathered in Boston to honour the career of Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education and J Donald Monan SJ professor of higher education in the school of education at Boston College, US. He will retire from his professorship, but continue as director of the centre.
The global gathering was organised to pay tribute to Altbach for his enormous contributions over almost 50 years as a teacher, scholar and advisor, and author of many books and articles on international higher education.
During a one-day seminar, key topics in international higher education were addressed by scholars and higher education policy leaders from around the world – including China, India, Africa, Russia, Europe, Latin America and North America: national and regional challenges for higher education; the international pursuit of excellence; and international imperatives, initiatives and risks.
Altbach, who does not like to put himself on a pedestal, set one condition for accepting this surprise honour: the seminar had to be substantive and its results will be published by the centre.
Look out for its future publication, as together the presentations provided a comprehensive overview of developments in international higher education over the past 20 years.
The study of higher education, and the role of Philip Altbach in this field, cover many themes: higher education, in particular the study of national systems, cultures and developments; comparative education, international education, and their combined approach – ‘comparative and international education’; internationalisation and globalisation of higher education; and the new overarching theme of ‘international higher education’.
Altbach has been one of the world’s few leading scholars with a continuing interest in these themes, and his research and publications, as well as his editorship of several journals, have been and continues to be highly relevant to define and orient the theory and practice of international higher education.
In a portrait in the Boston College Chronicle on 3 April he said: “Over the course of almost 50 years, I’ve tried to contribute to understanding the nature of the university and how it affects human, economic and social development. These institutions are critical to societies, whether they’re in developing countries or developed, industrial nations.
“To have spent so much time learning about universities in America and other countries, and picking up new perspectives, has been exceedingly interesting and fulfilling. It’s what I care about and it’s what I feel is important.”
That was Altbach describing his drive for studying student unrest in the US and elsewhere at the start of his academic career. The focus of his doctoral work on India, at the University of Chicago, served as an important platform for his interest in higher education in the rest of the world, especially developing countries.
Before anyone else, he undertook work on higher education developments in India, China, Russia, Africa and the Middle East, now at the centre of everybody’s attention but still building to a large extent on his work over the past years, such as the recent collection of his work on India, edited by Pawan Agarwal.
In his scholarly work, Altbach not only describes trends and developments, but also points to unintended and negative aspects of higher education development: its commercialisation; examples of fraud and corruption; degree and diploma mills; the use of agents and so on.
It has not always made him popular in university circles, as reflected in the sometimes-heated debate about the use of agents in the US context, but that has made him even more convinced of the necessity of addressing the more controversial sides of international higher education.
Center for International Higher Education
Over the past 20 years, the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) has been an amazing nucleus of innovative activities and individuals: publications, PhD and master students, visiting scholars and so on.
The small office of CIHE is always crowded with doctoral students, visiting scholars and visitors from different parts of the world who make it a friendly and vibrant community of international scholars and students, a global think-thank on international higher education.
The large number of books published under the auspices of the centre and the widely acclaimed quarterly publication International Higher Education – published in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Russian – capture the collective result of this international community of scholars.
Together – as Philip Altbach himself observed during the seminar in his honour – they have established this new field of international higher education: the study of higher education in a comparative and comprehensive way, moving from a focus on higher education in a national context to a more international context, reflecting the globalisation of societies and the increasingly important role of knowledge and higher education in that process, and addressing not only Western but in particular other contexts and concepts of higher education around the world.
Under Altbach's direction, the centre has focused on critical global higher education issues and the international factors that have shaped them, such as massification, privatisation, internationalisation and globalisation, the emergence of international rankings and the phenomenon of world-class universities.
Through his own scholarly work and working with others across the globe, he has given us a deeper understanding of the changing role of the academic profession; access and equity; higher education and social cohesion; the public-private mix; student circulation; emerging global models of the research university; and the positive and negative dimensions of these changes.
We can identify issues, trends and developments worthy of monitoring, but we cannot predict the future of international higher education. That is why we need the microscope of the scholar and the critical observer.
This is the unique contribution of Philip Altbach over the course of his incredibly productive academic career. His legacy lives on through our understanding of higher education globally.
He will retire as professor, but we are delighted that he will continue his work through the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
* Hans de Wit is professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, and director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. Patti McGill Peterson is presidential advisor on global initiatives at the American Council on Education. Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert and former World Bank Tertiary Education coordinator.
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