The nation state and international higher education

“Education is more than access to information. Education is also a way to see that information in itself is not education,” says Dutch higher education expert Hanneke Teekens. Therefore, universities will remain very important institutions that produce leaders, “especially in an intercultural context and in an interconnecting world”.

“True learning will only happen when there is an emotional positive stimulus. Only then will the brain make the connections that make new learning possible. Otherwise people will only come back to deeply engrained notions and stereotype thinking,” she said in a speech to the first Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education.

Also, most learning happens in groups and not individually. An individual behind a computer might get a lot of information, but not much else unless the person is able to relate the information back to intergroup learning – whether it is on the internet or in reality.

“So to create positive learning environments is an important task for the university, and the most stimulating learning environment is an intercultural and international one.”


Teekens was speaking on “The Nation State and International Education” in a plenary at the conference held from 22-24 August in Kruger National Park and hosted by the International Education Association of South Africa, IEASA.

A consultant and a senior fellow for internationalisation with NAFSA – Association of International Educators – in the United States, she spoke after Rob Brown of the education group Navitas, who described a world and higher education sector disrupted by technology.

“Indeed we live in a period of so much change that for many people the disruption is perhaps a more important issue than the opportunities it offers for the future.”

She referenced a Dutch expression, Oost West, thuis best, which means “East West, at home is best”.

“The problem is that there was a time when there was a home. Where the home was not disrupted by the internet. Where virtual and actual mobility did not blur – I think some young people are more at home in the virtual world than the physical world.

“Increasingly also in the internationalisation of higher education, the issue is how do we make people feel at home, and where is home, how do we define home?” Teekens asked.

“Education has an important role in socialising people. And people need to be socialised so they can be rooted in the end, somewhere. This is a very important issue this century – a century that has more than 65 million refugees across the world and increasing migration flows, and where education becomes a very contested issue within nations.

Role of the nation state

“My point is that when we look at further development of the internationalisation of higher education, we have to realise it is a process that is directed through nations.”

A key question is, can knowledge acquired in a certain situation be applied somewhere else? This notion is important, said Teekens, because no matter how or where knowledge is developed – even if this is done through international networks – its application will be local.

The notion of the local is difficult in relationship to the fact that much of what is happening today involves global issues that are not necessarily directed through the state. But whatever might happen to universities in future, currently they are the responsibility of the state.

“The nation state regulates who comes to the university – think of the whole visa issue, in most universities the international office is more busy with visas than with anything else – and of course funding is a key responsibility of the nation state, and quality control.

“Even in countries with a large private sector, the state regulates the way in which the accreditation of degrees is organised.”

Also, Teekens continued, individual learning and national responsibility are linked. “Strong universities need strong countries – to protect them, to develop them, and to have interaction between political rationales for sustaining higher education and the individual ambitions of students.” Countries need doctors, teachers and other professionals to develop society.

Universities and society

The conference heard a lot about the development of society, Teekens said, with society still mainly understood as a local or national community.

“I think we see that there is a return to people wanting to belong. Increasingly we see that it is the country people return to. People somehow feel their country is the way they can express their own identity.” She gave the example of the Olympic Games, where there is ever-more flag-waving and anthem singing and country medal ranking.

Teekens argued that universities do not only explore and develop new knowledge but are also key conveyors of local or national or regional culture.

“That is a reason why many students, even if they don’t go to lectures, still go to university, because it provides this social context that is important for their personal development.”

Universities should also be seen as institutions that prepare students for the market. “For some students – probably more talented ones – it will be possible to see the workplace as a global marketplace. But for many the workplace is local and we should not forget that.”

Increasingly there was talk about internationalisation of the curriculum. This needed to be linked to what, from a national perspective, is seen as a good graduate.

“To be a good graduate means you have the global competencies to deal with change, and to deal with change that occurs in different parts of the world but has a direct impact on you. Therefore, perhaps the context may be the same in many places, but the application of that knowledge is very culturally and locally defined.

“Even a curriculum that is shared across many countries, in its actual application will have very local delivery and very local applications.”

Education and freedom

Teekens pointed out that education is never free because it is never for free. While people increasingly want things for free – for instance, content on the internet – they are not free. “Somebody is paying, and somebody is investing. Whoever pays has a stake.”

“The role of universities in creating and supporting national interests links them directly to politics and the promotion of the country’s interest. The branding of countries and the way they promote themselves are part of their international reputation and image. Education plays a very important role in establishing the national brand,” she said.

“In places where religious belief does not allow for free discovery of knowledge, science stagnates and social and economic progress is difficult. Recently a surge of renewal in higher education is taking off. The question is how much of the innovation is ‘indigenous’ and how much is part of investments – and interests – in a transnational economic context.”

In some places, said Teekens, government, money and ideology were closely intertwined, without allowing for personal freedom. Academics and students could only succeed if they adhered to official views. Corruption and favours and lack of a meritocracy often prevented talented people from fulfilling their ambitions, creating strong pressure to leave the country.

“Freedom in higher education as it is perceived in the Western tradition means foremost the freedom to explore, to teach and research, to discuss and disagree and to discover new knowledge and insights. It means the freedom to experiment, to err and try again.

“From that perspective the truth is always provisional, until you find a new truth. But most important is the safeguard that the individual is protected from persecution as a result of new ideas.”

Global and local

Teekens does not foresee a global culture. “There will be a blended world in many ways, but culture will be locally defined in spite of technology.” A task for international education will be to make people understand why differences exist and “why our world is enriched by differences rather than by sameness”.

To learn from each other will be a very important task in the 21st century. Conference speakers had eloquently described pressures driving the growth of nationalism, as evidenced in Brexit, right-wing political parties that are currently strong in Europe, and in the United States in the run-up to the presidential election.

“So yes, there is a tremendous force forward, driven by technology. But the other side of the coin is that the old, at times reactionary and right-wing nationalistic tendencies in societies will come back to the nation state.

“What we should prevent is that these developments have an impact on the national character of universities. Let’s use universities as national institutions to promote international cooperation and to learn from each other.”

Universities, Teekens concluded, have an important role to play in sustaining societies that are open and give access to higher education for different groups and, most of all, prepare students to live and work in both a national and an international context.

“It is not either-or, it is both – it is the global and the local.”