Countering growing global divisions in higher education

In a tumultuous time of deepening divisions and inequalities, in higher education and in societies globally, it is imperative for universities to advance ‘responsible internationalisation’ and collaboration aimed at creating a better world rather than just promoting self-interest, says Leonard Engel, executive director of the European Association for International Education, or EAIE.

There is a danger that political developments such as Brexit, terror attacks and millions of refugees escaping war will undo what the internationalisation of higher education has been trying to achieve in the past two decades, such as the free movement of students and academics, and notions of interconnectedness, cultural understanding and global citizenship.

This begs the question ‘what next’ for international higher education, and for universities, policies and strategies?

“From my perception, we should invest much more time, resources and effort in collaboration that is not completely driven by, let’s say, self-interest,” Engel told University World News.

Currently many people in higher education are investing time and resources in activities that may help to create a better world but are primarily directed at what is good for their university, and will enable it to climb up the global rankings.

“Maybe that’s something we didn’t pay enough attention to in the past two decades – that the focus should be much more on society and how can we influence society with the work we do.”

These and other issues kicked up by current changes will be debated at the first Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education to be held from 22-24 August in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

Global conference, global dialogue

The conference is a follow up from the first Global Dialogue on Higher Education Internationalisation that was held in January 2014, hosted by the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA, and led by its current president Professor Nico Jooste, senior director of international education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

The dialogue in Port Elizabeth was attended by 24 international education organisations including major associations from America and Europe and groups from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.

There was agreement to promote international higher education and research “that recognises the richness and diversity offered by all regions for a global higher education agenda which is equitable, ethical, socially responsible, accessible and accountable”.

Also agreed in Port Elizabeth was that the Network of International Education Associations – an informal network of leaders of international associations such as EAIE and IEASA – would get involved in a follow-up to the dialogue.

“But maybe with a broader representation of other organisations around the world, because it was identified that certain parts of the world were not present,” said Engel. "Why were they not present and what could we do to ensure that they would be there the next time around?”

The lead in organising the second Global Dialogue is the Mexican international education association, with support from representatives of some other associations, and the current plan is to hold it in Mexico next year.

There was some uncertainty in Port Elizabeth – and this remains – about how a second Global Dialogue might articulate with a global conference. However, said Engel:

“I’m really hopeful that indeed the global conference can contribute to implementing or thinking through certain elements that were on the table during the Global Dialogue. And I think it’s needed.” The EAIE will be represented by its vice-president.

At the 2014 dialogue there was some support for a global conference to be held every four years in different parts of the world, and IEASA agreed that its 2016 annual conference would be replaced by the first global conference.

The aim, IEASA says, is for higher education educators and international education professionals and groups to explore current and future challenges facing higher education, and specifically its internationalisation.

“The conference promises to provide a platform where all can meet to deliberate without fear of domination of one over the other and will be arranged within the true spirit of Ubuntu [humanism] with all participants encouraged to improve the other and not the self.”

A call for papers elicited 85 abstracts under themes that include leadership of internationalisation, shifting global geo-political parameters and internationalisation of the curriculum. “The unique setting of the venue will provide for innovative thinking and re-thinking,” IEASA hopes.

Helpful messages

At the 2014 dialogue, the international education groups drafted the “Nelson Mandela Bay Global Dialogue Declaration on the Future of Internationalisation of Higher Education”.

It stressed the importance of developing “internationalisation activities that are imbued by ethical considerations of inclusivity”.

Participants agreed that the future agenda should concentrate on three areas of development: enhancing quality and diversity in programmes involving the mobility of students and staff; increasing focus on internationalisation of the curriculum and of related learning outcomes; and gaining global commitment for equal and ethical higher education partnerships.

Might sending out a new message, by international education associations such as EAIE, make a difference? “I think it is one of our responsibilities to at least try,” Engel told University World News.

“And so in the next few years the EAIE will try to advance what we call ‘responsible internationalisation' in Europe, be more present in Brussels and do more research to come out with data and facts instead of talking about perceptions.”

“We are starting to try and do that more, because it is extremely important – and I think that is also a driver for Nico Jooste, from a completely different perspective maybe – to not create a world together where 1% of all higher education institutions are in the rankings, and 99% are out. Because that will not lead to something good,” he continued.

“That is why I’m positively interested in what will happen with this global conference. To see if it is indeed different than the other conferences, and if there is a different type of discussion, debate and discourse,” said Engel.

“And that some of the very positive energy that I at least felt in Port Elizabeth is found again and may be translated into actions.”

* University World News is a media partner to the first Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education.