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Can internationalisation be a negative force?

Universities around the world are continuing to internationalise at an ever faster pace. They want their students to have trans-continental horizons when it comes to the world of work, and are hungry to be involved in worldwide research collaborations. So it's only natural that universities are keen to develop international partnerships with other universities.

Many value internationalisation as a way to improve education and research locally, through knowledge and technology exchanges, access to world-class education, international benchmarking of methods and teaching practices, education diplomacy, and interaction with other countries.

But is this always so? If institutions from emerging countries partner with those from rich countries, will Western models and assumptions, or even the use of English, dominate, unbalancing the relationship and deepening the disadvantages for the weaker partner?

Recognising and addressing some of the potentially negative sides of internationalisation will be an area of debate at this year’s Going Global 2016, the open forum for global education leaders hosted by the British Council in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3-5 May.

An Egyptian perspective

Equality of funding and jointly setting priorities must be part of any international partnership, according to Professor Ali Shams el Din, president of Benha University, Egypt, where internationalisation has urged a revolution in higher education reform. Without them there would be serious challenges.

On some aspects, particularly attempts to compete in international rankings, Egyptian institutions do not have the resources to match their goals, but on others they have been supported by external partners.

He told University World News: “With the assistance from various foreign countries and parties, especially the United Kingdom represented in the British Council, internationalisation in the Egyptian universities has moved from being a marginal priority to being a high [priority] that is more carefully and centrally encouraged, organised and administered.”

Egyptian universities have started to establish sustained international relationships, encourage collaborative research, introduce new schemes for student and faculty mobility, unify diplomas, foster international learning and adopt foreign reforms in order to make their status fit for this globalised education, he said.

But they have also attempted to improve their international ranking and attract talented scholars, without sufficient existing talent, resources and funds.

“This leaves the Egyptian universities at a significant disadvantage. They find it extremely challenging and complex to establish their prestige on the global higher education market. They barely register on world institutional rankings and produce a small percentage of the world's research output,” he said.

Another critical challenge is that some of the forces that currently influence internationalisation in higher education are “not necessarily compatible with local needs for development and modernisation”.

Some universities are being tempted to concentrate funds and efforts to improve performance specifically in areas measured in the rankings and pay less attention to other issues that are not rewarded in those scores.

Benha University by contrast has been working for the past four years to put in place a strategic plan for internationalisation, with support from the British Council, in which equal consideration of both partners’ priorities is undertaken jointly.

Real internationalisation, says Shams el Din – who remembers fondly his own experience of studying for a PhD in France in what is now known as Paris Tech – is not just about having links, but having a genuine partnership. It should mean “having win-win relationships, relationships of equality”.

A strategic partnership therefore means having student mobility in both directions, and an institutional partnership that looks both ways in different fields, with joint research, co-authorship of publications, joint workshops, and frequent meetings and exchanges of ideas.

For Benha University, this type of arrangement was made possible by the establishment of the Newton Fund – a £375 million (US$533 million) fund through which science and innovation partnerships promote the economic development and welfare of 15 partnering countries focusing around their priority areas – through which the UK and Egypt co-funded activities including cooperation on a sector level and implementation by institutions.

Egypt and the UK are “working in an equitable way because the fund is co-funded, and the priorities are agreed together,” Shams el Din said.

Both sides agreed to work on food, health, education, climate change and energy, covering many of the priorities in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Earlier this year 10 Egyptian and British universities signed memorandums of understanding with each other to start scoping visits, study visits and joint research. Some of them will also be putting in place joint masters degrees.

Part of a“win-win”, Shams el Din says, is that a PhD student sent to a laboratory in the UK to do research will learn from working with an international research team, and return to Egypt bringing their international experience with them, enriching the teaching in Benha University and the research he or she does there.

As well as the UK, Benha has partnerships with China, in joint agricultural research, and Japan in veterinary services.

“The Japanese don’t have the same animals. They want to work on some Egyptian breeds or varieties of animal to produce medicine, just as with agriculture with the Chinese the type of plants grown in Egypt are different,” Shams el Din says. “This is the win. The win of my side is that we get high-quality research, publications and cross-cultural exposure.”

A Brazilian perspective

Professor Evaldo Vilela, president of the State Funding Agency of Minas Gerais, a state in south-eastern Brazil whose name reflects the importance of gold and iron ore mining in its development, says Brazil is stronger internationally in research than teaching. In global terms it has a competitive group of excellence in research in health, agriculture and computing, and its key concern in internationalisation is having a local agenda for research.

“Today in Brazil we are very much concerned about having a local agenda for research. If we don’t have a proper agenda for the country, people involved in international exchanges will take the international agenda,” he says. “But that is not the fault of the process, the exchange of people. It is a local fault.”

A key issue however is funding. Brazilian universities are not looking for 100% but 50:50. His state has for a long time had partnerships with Germany, France and the US but in the past lacked funding to cooperate with the UK. That has changed since the Newton Fund was established.

Last year they received around US$1 million of external funding from the Newton Fund and support from the UK embassy in Brazil and the British Council.

Two factors which put Brazil at a disadvantage are the language, because Brazilians do not speak English and all of their neighbours speak Spanish; and the economy because the currency has plummeted against the euro and dollar.

“The main problem is the cost of living for our students [abroad], because of our economic crisis,” he said.

Speaking English is not a problem Vilela faces himself, having earned a PhD at Southampton University, but it is one that has grown since the country focused on training people to be teachers who have a local language, rather than importing teachers from the US, as it used to.

Minas Gerais has a network for internationalisation, enabling universities to work together and negotiate en bloc with potential partners. For instance, research links have been built on human vaccines, nanotechnology, neglected diseases and dairy products with the Netherlands, for instance.

Another potential risk of internationalisation is brain drain caused by a lack of the right opportunities for students who have finished their degrees. For instance, if they want to develop and take products to market they may realise the environment for doing that in Brazil is not as well supported as abroad.

“Some students who find it difficult to sell one patent or make a product for market might have been involved in projects with international labs and know how to go to an accelerator in Boston or Texas, and we may be losing many possibilities to have local companies," Vilela said.

“But again this is not a problem of internationalisation. This is a local problem, caused by a lack of the right policies or conditions for start-ups to flourish.

"The problem makes us more conscious of the need to have better policies and better infrastructure and venture capital for investment. This is good for the country.”

Minas Gerais institutions have partnerships with Africa, sending students for graduate courses but also researchers to Mozambique; and Latin America, with Argentina in health, physics and biology, and with Colombia in biology and agriculture.

For Shams el Din, whatever the risks and benefits of internationalisation, the key to getting the balance right in partnerships is to work within the framework of institution to institution agreements and with “government to government blessing”.

“If we have an institution to institution partnership we will take care of issues like our policies, the approach to research subjects, the agenda, the intellectual property rights on both sides. This needs an institutional internationalisation strategy. When there is an institutional weakness on one side and a lack of an internationalisation strategy, this partner will be vulnerable to the power of the stronger one.”
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