GLOBAL: Greatest challenge to higher education?

Recent bombings in Somalia and Iraq have brought the question of security of higher education institutions to the fore. In the first of two recent incidents, a suicide bomber disguised as a woman blew himself up at a graduation ceremony for medical students at a hotel in Mogadishu in Somalia.

Those who died included the Ministers for Education and Higher Education, as well as a number of medical students and journalists. In a separate incident, occurring on one of the bloodiest days in Iraq's recent troubled history, a car bomb, one of four that day, was detonated at the Shourja Market right near the Mustanseri University and the Institute of Fine Arts.

These latest incidents follow from the bombing last month of the Islamabad International Islamic University which killed six students and wounded 40 others. It took place when two suicide bombers blew themselves up - the first attack occurred in the female students' cafeteria, the second in the Imam Abu Hanifa Block, outside the office of a professor of Sharia law.

Pakistan's The Nation newspaper reported that "the Islamic University enjoys a good reputation among the world's major Islamic institutions, attracting a number of foreigner students and locals as well. Some students felt this attack could be a conspiracy against the university itself".

The attacks took place after some institutions, not the International Islamic University, received threats and shut down as a precaution. The Islamic University has 17,000 students, including 6,000 women, mostly from China and Africa.

This was not, however, the first incident of a higher education institution being attacked. In the closing days of 2008, the Gaza University was attacked in six separate raids and a professor from the Islamic studies faculty was assassinated soon after.

In November 1991, a 100 kilogram car bomb completely destroyed the administration building of the American University in Beirut in the early hours of the morning. While the Islamic University was not directly targeted, how did it get caught in the crossfire and what were the reasons behind the other bombings?

Recently, Pakistan has seen an alarming increase in violence. The bombing of the university was the seventh major attack within the space of two weeks. In an article in The Nation, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, "We are in a state of war. They will make every effort to destabilise the country. These so-called Islamists are enemies of Islam and enemies of Pakistan."

Yet, many students disagreed and showered him with stones when he visited the campus not long after the attacks. Rather than blaming the terrorists, the students accused the government of indirectly causing the attacks.

Whatever the reasons, no matter how valid or misguided, the unfortunate reality is such attacks are now a part of everyday life in some countries. Yet, they are also almost completely unpredictable.

As Dr Farid Zakaria says in The Post-American World, "The randomness of terrorist violence, the targeting of civilians, and the ease with which modern societies can be penetrated add to our disquiet".

It is this randomness, in particular, which may be a factor in the future of global higher education, both in terms of student movements and where institutions choose to establish international campuses. To date there have been no such attacks on Australian campuses, either domestically or internationally, yet this does not mean that Australia has not come relatively close to the action.

In November 2008, Monash University and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay opened their new joint venture, the IITB-Monash Research Academy. The official opening coincided with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Around the same time in Bangkok, key Monash staff were on official duty in Thailand during the anti-governments riots. Anomalous events perhaps, yet, at least in terms of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, subsequent intelligence showed that further attacks were a definite possibility.

What does this all mean for the future of global education? We are living in an era of unprecedented global interconnectedness. Travel is easier than ever before for a large number of people, and technology has literally put the world at our fingertips.

In terms of higher education, universities are offering, even encouraging, students to move around the world through agreements with foreign universities, or through their own offshore branch campuses. And we are not just travelling physically. Philosophies and ideologies are crossing borders, sometimes being absorbed into new cultures in their original, pure forms, other times being morphed into new, hybrid, global philosophies.

How those new philosophies are then interpreted and used depends on many factors often out of our control. Education often leads us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that we can change the world in positive ways. Yet being educated does not necessarily mean that we always adopt the appropriate course of action. The recent shootings at the Fort Hood military base in Texas show that education is not always a guarantee against aberrant behaviour.

History, culture and politics will almost certainly play a role in global higher education and security. It has often been the role of higher education institutions to become involved in working with governments and institutions in foreign countries to improve the quality of education, or to improve the life of local citizens. Working collaboratively, almost diplomatically, there have been many success stories.

With the new era of global higher education we are now experiencing, future collaborations may have to take an even more diplomatic path. Trans-national agreements between institutions take a long time to be forged. There is often a great deal of toing and froing before agreements are signed and the ink on the contract is dry.

One would imagine that once this stage is reached, it is simply a matter of getting on with the business of education. But this is not always the case.

Global higher education is an incredibly complex business. Licensing agreements, local government regulations, visa requirements for students and staff are all issues which, from time to time, will require some measure of diplomacy when disputes arise. Political issues between the host country and the country of the foreign institution may also lead to situations which require diplomatic interventions. The role of the heads of foreign universities is, indeed, not an easy one.

Higher education cannot and should not be driven purely by the lure of the dollar. It should be about fair and equitable exchanges of knowledge and ideas; it should be about open exchanges and a readiness to learn from one another. Yet, such a prospect is often easier said than done.

Past and present histories between countries, regional tensions between neighbours can make for difficult relationships. Being able to work around these relationships, though worthwhile in the long run, may be a convoluted and sometimes frustrating experience. It is also a task which requires a great deal of diplomatic skills, not just from university heads, but from academics and students as well.

Sue Boyd, President of the West Australian branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, refers to "second-track diplomacy". Diplomacy, as Boyd points out, used to be a matter for government only but "the growth in second track diplomacy... reflects the reality that governments do not have all the answers".

Could second track diplomacy also be used to cement relationships before issues arise such as in the case of trans-national agreements between universities? As Boyd explains, "Second Track (diplomacy) brings together technical experts, professionals, academics and concerned citizens.... The informal nature of Track Two diplomacy allows serious and potentially dangerous issue to be discussed in an open, non-official forum."

Global higher education has changed the way we think about and operate within the higher education sector. It is forcing us to push the boundaries, not only in terms of our own ideas and how they fit into this new globalised world, but also in terms of how we interact with others in a way that can bring the greatest benefits and reward to all involved.

There are many challenges facing the world today. Education is just one means by which we can begin to tackle them. Without a secure framework within which to work, however, these challenges may prove immaterial.

* Dale Down is a postgraduate student in international education at Monash University in Melbourne.