Partners in promoting greater global equality

It’s tempting to become caught up by what continue to be dominant, neoliberal conceptualisations of internationalisation – student mobility, increased marketisation and competition, world rankings driven by the Global North, the importance attached to publishing in high impact English language journals – the list goes on.

Focusing on such dimensions, we can be forgiven for believing that, rather than being sites for fostering access and developing equity and social justice, universities perpetuate inequity.

Taking student mobility as an example, the majority of those who travel to study in another country – most commonly still one of the Anglo-Celtic countries or Scandinavia and Western Europe – usually need to be wealthy, from a country that is able to provide scholarships or to have been advantaged in their ability to access education, or all three.

The Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program was a sterling example of a programme that challenged this continued stratification of higher education participation. It provided fellowships for those suffering exclusion and discrimination within the Global South, enabling them to study in more economically advanced countries.

The programme thus promoted greater access and equity in higher education – but, unfortunately, it ended in 2013 and, so far as I’m aware, hasn’t been replaced.

So, while I have some sympathy with those who are cynical about any claim for the potential of international higher education to foster global responsibility and social justice, I have a more optimistic perspective.

By articulating how social justice concerns underpin some core academic activities, I strive to show how international higher education institutions can become partners in the development of more equitable societies within and across national borders.

Challenging ‘internationalisation’

As globalisation continues to effect rapid changes across the higher education sector, our understandings of internationalisation ought to be similarly evolving, contextualised and open to being challenged. Importantly, what have been dominant, Anglocentric, ‘Western’ interpretations are being re-theorised by scholars in the Global South and in Southeast and East Asia so that they are more relevant to those contexts.

Integrating an international dimension into all of the functions of higher education, teaching, research and administration, is the common ‘Western’ definition of internationalisation.

If we reframe internationalisation’s goal, in any context, as the integration of a university into the emerging global knowledge and learning network, then this repositioning of the university as learning from the world – as well as dispensing knowledge to it – opens up spaces for genuine exploration of how universities can foster a sense of global responsibility in those who study and work there.

No longer conceptualising internationalisation as a Western, largely Anglo-Celtic, English-speaking paradigm is, therefore, a step towards greater equity and social justice.

Internationalisation of the curriculum

Hans de Wit suggests that for international higher education to be ‘for all’, more emphasis needs to be put on internationalised curricula.

Internationalisation of the curriculum is a slippery term, but it focuses attention not only on the appropriateness of curriculum content for a global, multicultural constituency – which includes recognising how certain knowledges are privileged in particular disciplines – but also that learning, teaching and assessment practices are culturally mediated.

Perpetuating those practices that dominate in an institution without critical interrogation of them may marginalise many students – from wherever they come.

This doesn’t mean that I’m advocating designing teaching to accommodate all ‘cultures’, but it’s not too difficult to invite students to share their previous learning experiences in order to understand how learning, teaching and assessment differ in various contexts.

Some adjustments can be made, subsequently, to one’s own approach in order, not only to display sensitivity to different pedagogies, but also to ensure greater inclusivity. Internationalisation of the curriculum, almost by definition therefore, foregrounds the potential for appropriately designed curricula to develop intercultural understanding and global responsibility.

Transnational higher education

Transnational higher education – a term used for a range of international activities but most commonly for programmes whose students are located in a different country from the degree-awarding institution – is often criticised for its academic or educational imperialism.

Such programmes, however, depending on how they are delivered, provide opportunities for furthering more equitable societies and social justice.

Embracing the post-colonial concept of ‘unhomeliness’, for example, which encourages exploration of the discomfort that may be experienced when encountering those whose values and beliefs appear to be significantly different from our own, opens up spaces for dialogue about those differences.

Such dialogue challenges us – students and academics – to reflect critically on our assumptions, thus destabilising our views of ourselves and our worlds and, ultimately, moving us to stronger understandings of each other.

In an international higher education environment, space for these challenges can be created ‘at home’, in particular as the ‘home’ student constituency is, itself, increasingly multicultural in many parts of the world.

The delivery of a programme in another context, however, even when that programme is being marketed on its similarity with the home programme, is a significant opportunity for students and academics to engage with their different academic practices and to understand how these are informed, perhaps by different worldviews.

Decisions about curricula and about transnational higher education programmes are ideological and shaped by beliefs about internationalisation/globalisation and about the curriculum itself.

Recognition of this opens up space for questioning and, in that questioning, the first steps are taken towards realising the opportunities for promoting equity and social justice that exist in international higher education.

Sheila Trahar is reader in international higher education at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, UK.