Competition is hindering compassion and conscience

It is clearly very important for universities to contribute to their cities, regions and countries. However, many of the major issues facing humankind such as the destruction of the environment, rising inequality and violence across borders can only be solved by countries and universities working together. In this sense, the question of how higher education contributes to global wellbeing becomes very important.

The refugee crisis that we face today has not originated in one country but has been caused by developments across countries. It is a crisis that can only be solved by countries and citizens working together.

Surprisingly, we have seen little joint action on the part of universities. While there are important exceptions, the delay in engaging with the current refugee crisis is symptomatic of higher education’s reluctance to engage with wider issues of global wellbeing.

This paralysis is caused by two traps: the competition fetish and market fundamentalism.

The struggle for positional advantage in the global economy and for highly skilled knowledge workers has contributed to a fierce competition within and between national systems of higher education.

Although universities attract students and faculty from across the world and move across borders, responsibility appears to be felt primarily to the country; and within the country, to the economy. Higher education has become actively involved in fierce status competitions. These include government-sponsored contests to identify and allocate differential funding to universities which are, or have the potential to be, world class.

In addition, the competition fetish has, of course, been re-enforced by global rankings.

All these contests come with their own sets of criteria to measure success – and none of these include global wellbeing. They take on a pervasive presence – spinning off into ever more circles of micro competition.


The second trap is what, amongst others, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has called market fundamentalism. Market relations and market values are encroaching into all areas of higher education. There are pressures for deregulation and for success to be measured by the sheer numbers of fee-paying students, research involvement with business interests and the degree of financial surplus acquired.

A drip by drip socialisation which leads to universities placing inordinate value on income and status could be at least partially to blame for the delayed response of higher education institutions when faced with the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Johannes Tarvainen, tertiary education officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reiterated the importance of higher education in the protection and future prospects for refugees at the Higher Education, Global Wellbeing and the Refugee Crisis symposium at the University of Bath on 30 September 2015.

He noted that refugees in higher education serve as role models for younger generations and that highly educated individuals contribute significantly to communities and reconstruction efforts. He noted however that, globally, less than 1% of refugees have access to higher education opportunities.

While some universities are developing important initiatives particularly around scholarships, much more could be done through global partnerships.

Participants at the Higher Education, Global Wellbeing and the Refugee Crisis symposium, which included those originating from Lebanon, Syria, Africa and Bosnia as well as a number of individuals who were originally refugees themselves, proposed that greater numbers of refugees could be reached through blended and online learning and cross-border credit accumulation.

Participants also pointed out the substantial proportion of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. They called on Western universities to work in partnership with universities in the region to develop more sustainable higher education solutions. Concern was raised from a number of quarters that the insights and advanced skills of refugees already in Western countries were not being used to work towards solutions in the current crisis.

Post-conflict situations

The higher education community could also contribute to rebuilding higher education in post-conflict situations. This is particularly important for reconstruction, but higher education can also play a major role in understanding the past and acting for change. Higher education can reach across ethnic and political divides to rebuild citizenship.

In contributing to the reconstruction of higher education, however, it is important to ensure that a neo-liberal marketised university template is not automatically applied. The one-size-fits-all approach favoured by global consultancies and international organisations is severely limited as the reconstruction of higher education systems is not linear and is in fact highly dependent on history and local context.

More generally, the current crisis provides an opportunity to reoccupy the disappearing role of the university as a critic and conscience of society. An important task for higher education could be to provide an alternative space for public discussion on the multiple causes and global consequences of the various refugee crises.

This could be grounded in Jürgen Habermas’s idea of a public sphere which is independent of government, economic and religious interests. In such a space of engagement, fear-mongering and disinformation about refugees can be challenged with evidence-based argument.

Rather than merely perceiving refugees as passive victims, the creative agency of refugee communities can be harnessed by refugees themselves participating centrally in such forums.

The university is a multi-faceted, multi-functional organisation which contributes to the economy, to social development and which can and should have the freedom to focus on blue skies research. Within all of this, there is enough space to contribute to global wellbeing in general, and to the refugee crisis in particular.

Rajani Naidoo is professor of higher education and director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management, or ICHEM, at the University of Bath, UK. This article is based on her presentation at the Higher Education, Global Wellbeing and the Refugee Crisis symposium organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education, or SRHE, South West Network (convened by Dr Lisa Lucas, University of Bristol), and ICHEM, University of Bath.The symposium was chaired by Helen Perkins, director of SRHE. The article has also drawn (where indicated) on the presentation of Johannes Tarvainen, tertiary education officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, as well as on the insights of participants, also indicated.