University internationalisation must respect values

Internationalisation of higher education, the proliferation of branch campuses, joint degrees and international research collaborations can mean navigating an academic, social and cultural minefield and making compromises. Universities could be taking a great risk and could end up compromising on important academic values such as academic freedom.

Branch campuses can also be accused of profiteering and imposing curricula on countries, which may not be compatible with their cultures and the national goals of host education systems, so important safeguards need to be put in place, according to an expert panel at the British Council’s Going Global conference in London on 1 June.

Peter Stearns, provost emeritus of George Mason University in the US, said some of the sharpest clashes with regard to internationalisation occur around academic freedom, with the conference hearing references to issues with regard to academic freedom in China, the Gulf countries and Singapore, where the debate has been focused on the Yale-NUS College campus.

Despite a genuine commitment to academic freedom, institutions “are particularly interested in collaborations with countries like China, Russia and elsewhere precisely on the grounds that international educational links ought ideally to help bridge or alleviate other tensions” that can be political, said Stearns.

"If you are working in another region that does not have the same respect for academic freedom, there are always compromises and differences. But we should always be able to embrace differences in the academy,” said Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, UK.

“There may be unfamiliarity with local regulations overseas which might mean universities accidentally falling foul of a regime they don’t know well. There may be cultural conflicts, things going differently in ways that create compromises in standards,” said Riordon.

Economic and social justice

The basis of collaborations with other countries needs to include values such as academic freedom but also needs to include issues such as economic justice, the conference heard.

Although the expert panel agreed that collaborations needed to be locally responsive and relevant, Judy Favish, director of institutional planning at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, noted that international ranking systems “tend to reinforce existing pecking orders and skew institutional behaviour in ways that go against national goals”.

“Chasing citations often ends up being a bigger driver of a research strategy than advancing a research strategy that will benefit the country or region,” she said, adding it is not possible for institutions in the global south to compete on equal terms with Western institutions. “The playing field is simply not equal,” Favish said.

What is required is not imposing on collaboration partners from the outside but making collaborations locally relevant.

"While it is extremely important to allow students to engage with issues with global perspectives, they must also be able to do so from the perspective of the country they are in,” Favish said.

“We need to be wary of any kind of exploitative or apparently colonialist approach. And that needs to be a conscious process and you have to exercise due diligence to ensure you are not causing harm while trying to bring undoubted benefits from internationalisation,” Riordan said.


“Running operations thousands of miles away may make it more difficult to exercise proper oversight,” Riordon said. “You cannot simply make the assumption that just because things work out okay at home, it will work out okay abroad.”

He said appropriate safeguards were needed but it was clear from the panel that there was little agreement on what forms these safeguards could take. Including such values in compulsory agreements was seen as “going too far” by some universities.

Although some countries such as Germany have a code of conduct for university and research collaborations, others such as the UK and US find that with such a wide variety of institutions any such code could be watered down to the extent that it could become meaningless, according to Riordon.

Riordon said it should be clear that the dissemination of knowledge is for the benefit of all. “It is very important when setting up overseas arrangements of any kind to think it through carefully and make sure there is not even a suspicion of profiteering or malpractice or otherwise taking advantage of others’ jurisdictions.”