HE internationalisation must help tackle inequality

Developments over three decades have placed one issue centrally on the agenda for higher education internationalisation – the huge and growing challenge of global inequality – says Professor Derrick Swartz, vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, or NMMU, in South Africa.

“I cannot see how you can successfully promote an internationalisation agenda in a world that is increasingly becoming deeply unequal in the way resources are generated, distributed and owned and controlled by different nations and within nations by different cohorts of people.”

“A true, planetary internationalism can only work, and work sustainably, if it spins on the central value of a more equal world.”

Swartz was delivering the opening keynote address at the first Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education, held from 22-24 August at Kruger National Park and hosted by the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA.

A sociologist who obtained masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Essex and worked in the United Kingdom, Swartz was poached back to South Africa where he is now the longest serving vice-chancellor, having led – and profoundly turned around – Fort Hare University before moving to NMMU in his hometown of Port Elizabeth.

His areas of special interest are the role of universities in the economy, the philosophy of science and the developmental role of higher education.

Welcome back

Swartz welcomed back international delegates. Many had been to Africa previously, and for the others: “You have been here before. Your genes are part of this great cradle of civilisation, dating back millennia. That which you are made up of, comes from Africa.

“We are all, originally at least, Africans.”

In the past 100,000 years, African ancestors who had populated the continent strayed across the Arabian peninsular and around the world, encountering Neanderthals (who contributed a little to the European gene pool), becoming established on all continents and evolving under different ecological conditions into ethnic and linguistic groups, and later nationalities.

“And so we are part of this human family. There’s only one race – the human race. We are 99.98% the same genetically.

“So although we look amazingly different, and we have different languages and cultures, we are fundamentally the same. And we are moved by the same things – love and fear and the need for shelter, the need to have a place under the sun,” Swartz said.

The role of universities

“If you really look at what the internationalisation of universities and the role of universities in society is about, in the end it is about creating a better life for all.” It is about looking after human beings as a species of seven to eight billion people, and looking after the planet.

More than any other institution in modern society, including corporations and religious institutions, universities have a unique anatomy that lends them towards a universal purpose.

“Teaching and learning, research and engagement and innovation – that is a language that should not know any boundaries, that should defy all linguistic, nationalistic, tribal, territorial, spatial boundaries that have been erected by human beings as we evolved as a species.”

“That gives us a unique opportunity but also a huge responsibility as universities to become radiators of an internationalism that can speak to all challenges that face our people. Because the challenges are no longer just local or regional or national for that matter, they are truly at a planetary scale.”

Humans created the problems they now face.

“The anthropogenic footprint of humans can be seen at large. Our biophysical environment, our natural environment, our oceans, our atmospheric systems, our terrestrial systems have been structurally altered through 300 to 400 years of industrial development.”

“And now nature is speaking back, and it requires us to think about solutions that cut across these territorial, ethnic, linguistic boundaries. To think of solutions to problems not only in local terms but truly on a grand planetary scale.”

Universities were quintessentially structured to respond, Swartz argued. “But universities don’t just exist in the ether, or in the abstract. They are not atoms in some quantum universe, drifting around. They are formed by local and national histories, cultures and languages.

“They have evolved and mutated in very many different directions, through the lenses of the national and local politics in which they were embedded and implicated for thousands of years. And so they carry, like you, the genetic footprints, the memories, the institutional traditions, the rituals that we have that date back from a past long forgotten,” he continued.

Multiple tensions

“This introduces a kind of multiple identity crisis – we are simultaneously universal in our pretentions and the way we act, and also local and regional.” These different imperatives are often in tension.

Also: “Who are the publics we serve? In an unequal universe, often the one who shouts the loudest or the one with the biggest pockets shapes the choices we make about who we serve.”

Another difficult set of tensions is around ‘blue sky’ and applied research.

Generating ‘blue sky’ knowledge – making fundamental discoveries about the way the world works, which push frontiers of knowledge but have no economic value that can immediately be seen – is “very much part of what universities are about and they should never relinquish that knowledge".

“At the same time modern, early 21st century universities are also about applying knowledge and skills to solve real world problems here now. There is a very temporal and spatially specific set of imperatives that we face. We are often tussling with these two kinds of roles.”

Universities did not have to make false choices between the two, and there were different ways to combine fundamental and applied research in universities, but it was often not easy because decisions had to be made about where to allocate budgets and resources.

“Does the local and the here and now take precedence over the universal, the planetary, the continental and the regional, and values and goals that are not immediately empirically verifiable or testable even, that are more long term, and knowledge for its own sake?”

Tricky neo-liberal context

Such questions arose in the context of a global economy that had gone through enormous transmutations over three decades, as a function of globalisation and a particular trajectory of globalisation that is often pejoratively call ‘neo-liberal globalisation’.

This had altered the structural dynamics of the global economy and the national economic systems in which universities were located, and they could not be impervious to its impulses, demands, pressures, expectations and logics. “We inhabit those contradictions.”

Starting after the global oil crisis of 1973 and a move to conservative governments in Europe and North America, there was a shift towards a more right-wing economic agenda that privileged markets over state interventions. Capital became unfettered and trade and commercial markets were liberalised.

During the 1990s there was a push to also see universities as commodities, “no different than companies trading on the global stock exchange”, Swartz recalled. “Skills, like knowledge, should be freed from national and local fetters, and have an untrammelled access to be traded and commodified globally.

“Some of us argued vehemently against this notion, but it was a strange inversion of a similar kind of argument we were making about internationalism – that universities and the knowledge and skills we produce should not be confined to national boundaries, that we have to speak to issues on a planetary or a continental or regional scale.”

While the neo-liberal agenda saw knowledge and skills as commodities to be traded and evaluated on the basis of an extrinsic economic trading value, “we know that the skills and knowledge we produce have a far deeper intrinsic and often immeasurable set of values, and cannot be reduced to simple material and immediate instrumentalist needs, even though there is an instrumentality to the knowledge and skills that we produce.”

Today there is a massive gulf between a super-rich elite that is 1% to 2% of the global population and owns half of the planet’s disposable assets, and a vast pauperisation of people who have no chance of becoming prosperous, with a profoundly negative impact on the structural make-up of the global political economy.

Fees or free higher education?

In his 17th year as a vice-chancellor, Swartz said he was “deeply disturbed” by how the issue of tuition fees was playing out at universities. There had been a massive and “very dramatic” social and political protest movement for 18 months across South Africa.

Students were insisting that there should be no fee increases. “On top of that they are demanding a free higher education dispensation. This is an absolutely huge challenge for us.”

The economy was performing badly and had been poorly managed, with higher education “chronically underfunded” – receiving less than 0.79% of gross domestic product. In response, universities had systematically passed on the burden of cost to families.

“That chicken is coming home to roost big time in our institutions. The public are speaking back and we have to find a new way to think about this.”

Swartz said he did not endorse the idea of universal free higher education. “I support free higher education for the poor,” he told the conference. The idea that the rich should be freed from the obligation to pay university fees seemed “morally reprehensible and unacceptable".

“But for the poor and the lower middle-class, absolutely. That’s exactly what government policy has neglected so far, apart from the structural underfunding of higher education.”

“Two logics intersect. One is an attempt to massify institutions, to expand numbers at all costs so we can show ourselves, our publics, the electorate and the world that we are democratising the elitist system we inherited. At the same time we are sitting with chronic underfunding, almost in diametric opposition to that.”

It was an experiment that was bound to fail, said Swartz, and the result was #FeesMustFall.

African colleagues would recognise the problems, as they had been grappling with university underfunding since the 1970s or 1980s and were also in the throes of expansion. There were similar struggles in Chile and Western Europe, and in America where the cost of higher education and student debt had spiralled. “There is a global problem.”

The struggles of students were tied to the struggles of social classes in societies, the product of the neo-liberal experiment that had become “grotesquely unfair and morally wrong”, pushing middle-class communities into poverty and spawning large populations on the economic periphery with no hope of entering higher education.

“So it is important that when we focus on the problems of inequality in higher education, we simultaneously link that to problems of inequality in society. The much deeper, growing gulf between rich and poor.”

Around the world, inequality had become the heart of politics and was feeding populism. Many people today felt they had no role because entire cohorts of jobs had been stripped away and many people had no work even though they have skills and ability. “These people are angry, they are frustrated, they feel deeply let down by the system erected over them.”

A return to values

Swartz said French economist Thomas Piketty was right about inequality being the defining issue from the early to mid-21st century.

“And so should it be for universities. This value, this mantra, this clarion call that we need to make across universities must be for a more equal world in which we share nature’s estate more equitably among the nations of the world and different peoples of the world.”

Universities should ally themselves with social movements working for a more equal society. “I do not think we can be value neutral in this one.”

Within the schizophrenia of universities was belief in remaining aloof from the world in order to critique it. This had been part of the scientific method for millennia. “I think we still should maintain that sense of the distance of the observer,” Swartz maintained.

“But as quantum physics will tell you, the observer by looking at the world affects that world in ways that he or she does not understand immediately. So we are implicated in the process of observation – we become a participant and so we are inextricably bound to the human drama that unfolds within our world.

“I do think that universities must stand for the right thing as power institutions. Stand for democracy. Stand for human rights. Stand for social justice. Stand for a more equal world.”

In current times, universities should stand in solidarity with the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable – such as the people of Syria, or academics in Turkey who had been suspended in their thousands following a coup attempt.

University associations such as the International Education Association of South Africa had to link higher education internationalisation to creating a more equal society. Values such as equality and peace and creating a better world “should be right at the heart of what internationalisation and internationalism of universities is about. I call on an activism for this world,” Swartz concluded.

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