Going Global 2016 – Setting the higher education agenda

Going Global 2016 really began with a “constructive but feisty” steering meeting in Cape Town about what the focus could be – and why the British Council was even leading such a global higher education debate. The theme of “Building Nations and Connecting Cultures” came out of a rich discussion on local versus international priorities and how they mesh or don’t, said Jo Beall, director of education and society for the British Council.

“This fed into the notion of universities contributing to nation building.” The full theme of Going Global 2016, to be held in Cape Town from 3-5 May, is: “Building Nations and Connecting Cultures: Education policy, economic development and engagement”.

These are issues of interest to universities and governments around the world, and are of great pertinence to the region, said Beall, who is well placed to lead global development dialogues.

A graduate of the London School of Economics, she was a professor of development studies there and later deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. She is an expert on internationalising higher education and international development and a prolific author who has researched extensively in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and South Africa.

This year’s Going Global will once again have well over 1,000 participants. “We get a good 500 who are ministers, top civil servants, vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors,” Beall told University World News, a media partner to the conference.

There is always a predominance of participants from the region where the conference is located. “But we get people from everywhere and there will be a great attraction with Going Global 2016 being held in Cape Town.

“What’s different about this one is that the quality of papers and panels we’ve had submitted is much higher than in the past. We think it is part of the evolution of Going Global towards being a much more serious, thoughtful conference. High quality papers have come from all over the world including the African continent, and that is very pleasing.”

Beall stressed the importance of regional input. Going Global has an overarching advisory board, based in the UK and comprising a core of people representing key constituencies such as Universities UK as well as people who are knowledgeable about the themes. “As important, and meeting as often and steering the content to the same degree, is a regional committee.”

The first of several regional steering meetings was held in South Africa a year ago. It has representatives of key bodies like the Association of African Universities, Universities South Africa, the Cape Higher Education Consortium and the South African government as well as university leaders and experts from around Africa.

“The African steering committee made it very clear that they were anxious about holding a conference that smacked perhaps of imperialism or neo-colonialism. Were we coming to Africa to further the brain drain? Absolutely not. The reason why we have a regional steering committee is so that we can set the agenda for the conference together.”

A change of direction

Beall described Going Global as the world’s key non-membership based, independent international higher education conference. It is different from ministerial gatherings or international education association conferences. “Going Global started small and with a focus on international higher education and student recruitment, but it’s moved way beyond that.”

So where has Going Global been moving?

“The first thing is that it moves around the world, and this is going to be the first time in Africa,” she said. “The second thing is that it no longer is about the internationalisation of higher education and is much more about international trends and issues.” Tertiary education and the skills field are also covered.

Going Global has been around for 12 years. In the early years the focus was on areas such as transnational education, branch campuses, joint programmes and student mobility.

Then in 2012 one of the keynote speakers was Harvard’s Professor Homi Bhabha, a critical theorist renowned for his work in post-colonial studies. He spoke eloquently about international relations, the role of higher education in it and social identity.

After testing the water with Going Global’s key constituencies of ministers, civil servants, university leaders and directors of international offices, the decision was made to go in a more thoughtful direction.

Two years ago, Going Global was in Miami, chosen as a bridge between Latin America and North America, with access and quality the big issues. Latin Americans were worried that in higher education, increased participation would be at the cost of quality. Last year it was back in the UK, where the key issues – for all of Europe – were access and inclusion.

For Cape Town: “It is about how higher education can play a role in positive social and economic change. We know that economically higher education gives rise to a skilled workforce, and research universities contribute to innovation and knowledge economies.

“But we’re also focusing a lot on the social contribution to nation-building – the creation of more informed citizens, more tolerant societies, more participative communities and then the better living conditions that come out of some of the research that universities give rise to.”

In 1961 the former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, when the University of Ghana became independent from the University of London, spoke of the importance of the university for nation building – and also the importance of remaining internationally connected and relevant to be able to play the nation-building role.

The great African leader’s argument, said Beall, “shows the connection between nation-building and local concerns but also the importance of not becoming parochial and cut off from international trends”. This is one of Going Global 2016’s key strands for debate.

Competition versus collaboration?

There are inexorable drivers towards global partnerships, on both sides and for both partners, Beall said. In North-South partnerships, for example, universities or systems from both the global North and the global South benefit as much from international collaboration.

The issue is the terms of partnerships, and this will be explored at Going Global. “Because if you look at the international drivers, there is no doubt that some institutions and some systems are looking for international collaboration from a very one-sided point of view.

“There are universities looking to increase their influence, their student numbers, their research impact. That’s fine as long as they are working with partners that are strong and clued up and supported enough by their national systems to engage on terms of parity. You’ve also got national systems that are looking to have international influence.

“The key thing, from an Africa perspective, is: are universities able to engage under conditions of their choosing, or how vulnerable are they to the whims of people who hold the purse?”

Beall also described a tendency to take a “designer handbag approach to international partnerships”. She travels abroad and universities say they want to partner with Oxford or Cambridge, but they don’t yet have a place in the global rankings. At the UK and European end, universities only want to partner with Cape Town or the Witwatersrand.

“Neither of those are acceptable. One of the things we have to work on is what constitutes realistic partnerships and how can we ensure that a broader range of universities benefit from international collaboration and have opportunities to participate in it. The whole ranking system really works against that.”

The British Council, said Beall, was hoping to promote much larger consortia and broader partnerships, as well as mixed collaborations, say between research-intensive and teaching-intensive universities.

For instance, regional consortia in the north of the UK clustered around Manchester. “The power of higher education in terms of the regional economy is going to be much greater if you add the multiplicity of institutions,” she argued. If you look at one university, “you don’t get the broad picture of the economic contribution of tertiary education.

“Sharing some of those models internationally, from the UK and from Africa, will be valuable for people coming from other parts of the world that perhaps haven’t had the historical drivers and forces to think in those ways.”

Sub-theme – Education policy

One of three sub-themes looks at education policies – especially local priorities, national systems and global drivers – with hot issues including the question of reconciling global and local imperatives and competitive drivers with the need to address common challenges.

“For policy-makers one of the key challenges is to open up your education system to increase access and competition – which is good for all – without undermining the national system.”

This is a crucial balance to strike. Beall gave as an example different approaches to private higher education: Nigeria opened its post-school system to private providers, and now private universities are among the best; while South Africa was cautious about opening opportunities for private universities and focused on protecting and growing the public system.

But private universities don’t fund the most expensive courses. When the public university system is protected, there is cross-subsidisation from cheaper courses to more expensive ones, such as medical schools. A challenge Going Global will explore is how much to open higher education to give people more choice, and how much to protect public systems.

“The UK government is really pushing greater competition and more private participation in higher education delivery. That’s had mixed effects. It has nudged public universities out of their complacency. But it has meant that the sciences and medical sciences are much more dependent on private funding and student fees, than on government subsidy.”

Sub-theme – Economic development

The economic development sub-theme – which includes skills, enterprise, research and innovation – has key aspects, said Beall. One is shifting perceptions about Africa as a continent of opportunity rather than the begging bowl.

People who live in or work on Africa know that it has the fastest growing economies, is the most quickly urbanising continent and has the largest growth in the middle-class outside India. “But a lot of people around the world won’t know that.”

In terms of higher education, Beall said, there are two key areas up for debate – on the need to produce both employable graduates and research, and on differentiation.

It is important to shift a widespread view that African universities are there to provide employable graduates for economic development. “That’s absolutely critical but it’s not the only reason we have universities.

“One of the challenges for Going Global is to say yes of course, we need to produce more engineers and more skilled graduates and so on. But we need to respect the right of African higher education systems and universities to also invest in research and innovation.

“There is a tendency among international publishers to say right, we provide the thought leadership and research from the North and you provide the graduates. And that’s not OK. It’s about getting the balance right.”

Which leads to the second big question – whether to achieve that balance within one university or within one system. “In the UK and in Africa there is a big debate on differentiation,” Beall pointed out.

Should the national higher education system comprise research-intensive universities that contribute to innovation and economic development through research, while other universities contribute by producing a skilled labour force – or should all universities do both?

“This will be a hot debate. Going Global, with its high proportion of ministers attending, is a good vehicle for that debate. Often in these conferences, universities lead the debate and they have their institutional agendas. People representing national higher education systems can think about the role of different kinds of universities within that system.

In some countries, such as China, universities get told what they are going to do and get resources to do it. “But countries like India are really grappling with how to expand and develop a large-scale education system and new universities. There are some countries still grappling with the differentiation issue.”

Sub-theme – Engagement

This embraces issues such as democracy, social justice and international relations, and is related to the overall theme of universities and nation building, said Beall, “in terms of actually creating identity and a national system of democracy and the rule of law, and the idea that you don’t have democratic systems or rule of law outside a highly educated population".

It is a theme enthusiastically suggested by the African steering committee and, continued Beall, it will now be influenced by activities in South Africa around the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements.

“Before all that happened, we were thinking in quite bland terms about the relationship between democracy, access to justice and rule of law. Now the debate will be much more about the role of students, their relationship with the wider world, outsourcing and so on.”

While this might not be of great interest to all participants from outside the region, she added, the student fees debate is global. “And it’s going to be very interesting to have an African-led and African-demonstrated engagement issue put before a global audience.”

A one-way or two-way street?

Is the British Council, which contributes to the global higher education agenda through Going Global, in turn influenced by it? “Absolutely yes,” said Beall.

The council commissions research on themes that come out of the conferences. “That’s one way that Going Global really influences us. The very fact that we’ve shifted to issues in higher education globally and away from internationalisation is a direct result of participants in Going Global saying ‘Oh here they come again, trying to attract students to the UK’.

“Over the last five years we’ve really responded to people who want serious discussions about the system and what we can learn from each other,” she added.

“Another feedback from Going Global, which is absolutely our flagship activity in higher education, is to the university sector in the UK.” Informing universities about the ideas and debates and research that comes out of Going Global has, for instance, shifted perceptions that China and India are the only places you go to recruit or look to for partnerships.

“We bring the world to Britain through Going Global and that makes it much more of a diverse partnership landscape.”