Shouldn’t global universities follow global principles?

Should the principle of educational equality apply to all students worldwide or only to some students – namely, those who have citizenship and permanent residency rights?

Conventionally, theory, policy and practice surrounding educational equality have tended to stop at the nation-state border. Concern with equality matters frequently goes missing in discussions of international higher education.

Even international treaties committed to promoting equality in education, such as UNESCO’s Convention Against Discrimination in Education, tend to do so within individual nation-state and not trans-border contexts.

With the growth of the internationalised university, where increasing numbers of students are international and where universities often run transnational courses overseas, this question of educational equality across borders becomes a pressing concern and dilemma.

Some scholars and practitioners fear that internationalisation could lead to the gradual erosion of equality commitments in education, due to the heavily marketised nature of the international higher education sector.

In the realm of university tuition fees, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘gate theory’ of internationalisation: the concern that acceptance of marketised tuition fees for international students is the thin edge of the wedge that will eventually lead to the full marketisation of all students’ tuition fees, home students included.

Fragmentation in the UK

However, at least in the context of higher education in the United Kingdom, this is not exactly what seems to be occurring: in the internationalised university, the principle of educational equality does not disappear; instead, it gets fragmented.

This fragmentation of equality occurs along a number of different dimensions – institutional, temporal, spatial and social. This is how it works:

In the UK, a national organisation called the Equality Challenge Unit, or ECU, is responsible for promoting equality for home and international students in the higher education sector. But the ECU only addresses equality issues for students already in the UK higher education system and thus ignores the critical issue of university access and admissions.

Another organisation, the Office for Fair Access or OFFA, is responsible for promoting equality of access to higher education nationally; however, OFFA is only concerned with home students, not international students.

Similar institutional fragmentation occurs on many individual university campuses, where widening participation offices work with home students only, and have little or nothing to do with international student offices in the same institution.

What this means is that the principal equality issue of access that is at the heart of most higher education theory, policy and practice in the context of the nation state has no institutional coverage for international students in the UK whatsoever.

Such institutional fragmentation is mirrored by temporal and spatial fragmentation as well.

Equality on campus, but not off

To a considerable extent, international and home students in the UK are treated, by law and policy, as complete equals while they are in the same classrooms and campuses together, from the point at which they commence their studies to the moment they graduate.

However, equality between international and home students before and after the duration of their university studies is almost non-existent: there are no substantive programmes of widening participation or equal access to higher education for international students in the way there are for home students; and after graduation, international students have strictly limited access to the UK labour market, no right to remain in the country and may face difficulties in progressing to higher degree levels.

International students also face a five-year time limit on their student visas for studying in the UK.

Similarly, equality between international and home students is radically diminished as they step outside of university campuses – thanks largely to UK immigration policy. International students, unlike home students, have restrictions placed on their employment rights, family rights, rights to vote and engage in political protest and on their civil liberties and personal freedoms.

Further, many international students are not in the same classrooms or campuses – or, in the case of transnational education, countries – as UK home students. The internationalised university has itself become spatially fragmented, comprised of a networked archipelago of material, institutional and curricular units.

In such a context, it becomes increasingly difficult not just to produce a situation of educational equality for home and international students, but even to know what educational equality would look like.

Individualised equality

Perhaps the most fundamental difference in how educational equality for international students is promoted in the UK is that the vital public character of the educational equality principle has been erased.

Educational equality for home students is tied to each student as a representative of a broader social group in the UK: we are concerned, for example, with the relative opportunities in higher education for students from different racial and ethnic groups. Educational equality is also justified as being for the greater good of UK society overall.

Educational equality for international students is radically individualised and concerned only with the rights of each individual student herself or himself. There is no agenda of ensuring proportional representation and success in higher education for different social groups of international students; and international student recruitment is usually justified by British national and not global public interests.

This phenomenon of fragmentation of educational equality raises serious questions of global (in)justice in the higher education sector. As universities cease being national institutions and embrace the identity of becoming truly global, there is a duty to ensure not just that research and teaching are world class, but that principles of educational equality and justice are properly internationalised as well.

To this day, universities in the UK continue to publish mission statements that pledge their commitment to universal equality of educational opportunity and experience.

There is a need to think through exactly how such commitments are going to be carried out across nation state borders in a holistic and comprehensive manner; or alternatively, acknowledge that such statements are disingenuous, the relics of a previous era when universities were more local and national in nature.

Stuart Tannock is a senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, United Kingdom. His forthcoming book on this topic, Educational Equality and International Students: Justice across borders? will be published by Palgrave Macmillan next year.