From globalisation to global citizenship

An interesting development I have observed in international higher education is the increased use of the adjective ‘global’: global education, global competences, global citizenship, global engagement, global partnerships etc.

Over the past years an intense debate has taken place about the differences and similarities between globalisation and internationalisation of higher education. Is internationalisation in higher education a response to globalisation? Is higher education an active force in globalisation?

Is globalisation more an expression of the commercialisation of international higher education (education as a tradeable commodity) and internationalisation more the traditional concept of cooperation and exchange (higher education as a public good)?

As Uwe Brandenburg and I stated in our essay, “The End of Internationalisation”, there is a strong inclination to identify globalisation in higher education as ‘evil’ and internationalisation as ‘good’, although the reality is more complex.

Interestingly, this notion of ‘evil’ seems not to be associated with the use of the adjective ‘global’. The word ‘global’ is becoming more and more common as an alternative to international: in professional titles such as ‘vice-president for global affairs’; in the names of international units, such as the Centre for Internationalisation and Global Engagement of the American Council on Education, ACE; and in the frequent use of terms such as global competence and global citizenship.

This intensive use of ‘global’ is related to the ACE Blue Ribbon Report’s description of higher education as “explicitly, and fundamentally, a global enterprise”. And although the use of the term ‘enterprise’ might be more associated with globalisation and education as a tradeable commodity, the report continues:

“Today, colleges and universities are asked to prepare tomorrow’s citizens not for a single career but for a life of unpredictable velocity and volatility. Simultaneously, they are asked to produce graduates who are capable of communication across borders and citizens who are invested with the capacity to navigate a transparent, permeable world.

“Active engagement with the rest of the world has become fundamental to a high-quality education, one that prepares students and their communities for the larger world in which they will live and work.”

And although the report is not using that term (it prefers "global engagement"), this is an appropriate description of what is meant by the role higher education has in preparing graduates for ‘global citizenship’, probably the most fashionable global term these days.

Madeleine Green, formerly at ACE and now working for the International Association of Universities and NAFSA as a senior fellow, stated in a recent essay, “Global Citizenship – What are we talking about and why does it matter?”, that the focus on global citizenship “puts the spotlight on why internationalisation is central to quality education and emphasises that internationalisation is a means, not an end. Serious consideration of the goals of internationalisation makes student learning a key concern rather than counting inputs.”

This increased use of the adjective ‘global’ to describe outcomes of internationalisation in my view is more relevant than attempts to distinguish between internationalisation and globalisation.

The danger, as with many other adjectives that are used, is that it becomes meaningless through overuse, through using it without making clear why it is used, what we mean by it and how its outcome is defined. Are all graduates to become ‘global citizens’ equally? Are all higher education institutions to be equally engaged globally?

I see too many examples where the use of the word ‘global’ is seen as an outcome in itself instead of as something to strive towards.

Madeleine Green is aware of the potential problems related to a concept like global citizenship. She is correct in warning that this should not stop us from developing and implementing such concepts. Learning from and comparing good and bad practices is the only way forward. Her essay is a good start and provides relevant ways of defining global citizenship as well as references to useful literature.

* Hans de Wit is professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. As of 2012 he is also director of the new Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, a centre exclusively focused on research and training (PhD and masters) in internationalisation.