Redefining the significance of ‘international’

Most universities that claim international status now refer to the internationalisation of their student profile and academic staff as indicators of their achievements. However, the uncritical celebration of numerical gains through these indicators can mask a more fundamental question: "Has knowledge within these universities become de facto more global in substance and geographical coverage?"

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The growing presence of academic women from the Global South in universities in the Global North provides us with a good example of the contradictions that arise when we concentrate on management indicators without looking deeper at the power system that continues to sustain asymmetries.

Indeed, there has been an increase in the trans-border movement of academic women from the Global South that now teach and research in universities in the Global North. This certainly represents an advance in relation to their position three decades ago.

Still, it is often the case that the terms for their inclusion continue to be based on the hierarchies that characterise our modern/colonial system of knowledge.

Diversity discourse

If we accept that race and gender are inseparable categories through which the politics of knowledge production must be examined, it is easy to see that the discourse on diversity within universities is not always as liberating as it may first sound.

The challenges and sense of discrimination women from the Global South experience vary considerably depending on their background, workplace and disciplines. Nonetheless they remain more frequent than glossy university catalogues allow us to see.

In negotiating their inclusion in dominant systems, a variety of strategies are used. Some silence their past and try to assimilate as fast as possible into their new environment. Others highlight their differences and embrace marginality within the system as their space for resistance and creativity. But underlying these variations is their shared experience of 'Otherness'.

Lost meanings

In a project that was born out of a series of conversaciones around 2013 and 2014, a group of women linked to Latin America shared their experiences as migrant academics. What we noticed was that despite coming from different countries and disciplines, many of us had lived a particular form of displacement that involved ruptures in our intellectual identity.

Suddenly, concepts, histories and influential thinkers that were relevant in our context lost meaning in our new workplace or found no adequate ‘translation’. We had to learn quickly that even in the globalised university, career progress continues to involve considerable doses of epistemic violence.

Academic women from the Global South have choices, but within certain limits. We can be sufficiently disciplined and reproduce the belief in provincial knowledge as universal, or we can become successful scholars by specialising in our own culture and country.

But how many of us have gained international recognition through our contribution to theory or as experts on the European Union or United States politics? On the other hand, many academics from the Global North seem to hold great confidence in their capacity to theorise and to build careers as experts in a variety of countries from the Global South.

Thus, returning to the question proposed at the beginning of this article, it seems that we still need to work more effectively on expanding the borders of knowledge, in order to break up the mental frames that have locked us in the modern/colonial system.

Transformation through action

The old frames of the current system will not be changed through words only. Their transformation requires discipline of another kind, one that combines solidarity, resilience and strategic action. Among the various practices that women from the Global South are already implementing we can cite:
  • • Situating knowledge;
  • • Support of critical thinking and the presentation of a wide range of academic perspectives;
  • • Valorisation of teaching and dialogues with students;
  • • Incorporation of scholarship from the Global South as part of core readings;
  • • Historicisation of knowledge, revealing forms of knowing that co-exist historically.
Underlying all these practices is our commitment to remember, to revisit the past as often as needed in order to reveal silenced histories. While much of the talk on global leadership in universities emphasises the future, we highlight the value of the opposite move.

If our intention is to build leading universities, which will really embrace different forms of knowing and being, then we cannot ignore the mistakes of the past nor abandon our responsibility in the present.

Zuleika Arashiro was lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University. Since 2016, she has worked in consultancy and research in Brazil. With Malba Barahona, she co-edited Women in Academia Crossing North-South Borders (Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books, 2015).