When East meets West in transnational higher education

Whenever I write an opinion piece about international education in Australia, I always brace myself for the thinly disguised xenophobia that emerges in comments reflecting on the ‘international student’.

Most often, the commenters harp on about four specific issues: international students’ lower standards because of their ‘bad’ English language skills; international students are PR (permanent residency) hunters; international students take away places meant for domestic students; and international students keep to themselves because they don’t want to engage with local culture and society.

Unfortunately, these impressions of international students are also expressed not-so-subtly by academics who teach international students at various tertiary levels.

Phan Le-Ha’s excellent and timely book Transnational Education Crossing 'Asia' and 'the West': Adjusted desire, transformative mediocrity and neo-colonial disguise, while discussing transnational education or the internationalisation of education through offshore campuses, helps arm us to confront public discourses – even watercooler talk in university staff lounges – which are heavily tinged with doubt regarding transnational education.

The book is not only academically fascinating, including a thorough review of the literature in the international and transnational education arenas, but it also references postcolonial theory. However, while Phan draws from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) canon, she rightly yet respectfully tells us that we need to consider new theories since theory is a product of time and place.

This is where her use of rich and original ethnographic material to argue that the behemoth that is transnational education today has revealed unforeseen yet interesting developments in global relations beyond the education space is especially noteworthy.

The complex East meets West dynamics

Phan’s book is perhaps the first I have encountered to honestly reflect on transnational education and its complexities within the context of ‘East meets West’ where Western universities open offshore campuses to service local students.

Phan effectively breaks down any barriers between ‘East’ and ‘West’ by questioning those very gated notions. East and West, after all, may well be becoming somewhat antiquated concepts since the times when they were terms that had much more currency during the heady days of European colonialism when differentiated power relations with very strong racial, socio and economic overtones were all in vogue.

Phan’s discussion of East and West implies in no uncertain terms that the power relations between both have now shifted, but not in a straightforward manner. In other words, while universities from the West (Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and France) have opened campuses in the East (Dubai, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand) – which may seem like a soft form of colonialism – these institutions rely on a business model based on the needs of local students.

Moreover, the Western university campus has now become a romanticised environment where students desire to experience the exotic ‘foreign’ culture Western campuses are perceived to bring with them, thus flipping Said’s long beloved theory of Orientalism.

Moreover, the Eastern cities where Western campuses are nestled are arguably more Western in appearance than the West. Singapore, for instance, is an English-speaking cosmopolitan Wifi-enabled financial capital that rivals any city in Australia, the US, the UK and France.

The mediocrity of transnational education

This brings me to two key points that Phan raises which are linked to my reflections at the beginning of this article. One is the argument she makes about the mediocrity of transnational education, particularly in the chapters on Vietnam and Thailand. She argues that in the quest to cater to the growing demand for a Western degree experience in non-Western countries, institutions have sacrificed quality for quantity.

This is an important point, particularly when it comes to the perception of future transnational students and their families where declining entry and teaching standards are a slippery slope with short-term gains (more students, so more profits) but with long-term damage to reputation, which her interview data with students and their families is showing. This discussion of standards brings me to my second point: the significance of the English language.

While English is often the second, third or even fourth (or more!) language of a transnational education (or international) student, it is also a language which these students hold with great regard. Phan’s data based on interviews with students and their families clearly mentions that a reason for enrolling in a foreign institution in their own country is because the instruction throughout their degrees is in English.

With a foreign degree under their belt, there is the perception that students will get better employment and their socio-economic (class) status will improve. Here Phan’s respondents take issue with institutions’ inability to provide a complete English-language learning environment where fellow students don’t resort to speaking in other languages.

In my own work on international students in Australia, I found that the quest for improving one’s English language skills is paramount since my respondents felt that excellent English skills allowed them to communicate and thus make friends with Australian students, which eventually allowed them international mobility to live and work in the financial cities of New York and London.

To end this review, one passing comment mentioned by a respondent in the book which I was immediately drawn to was a note about how Australian students, possibly on exchange, behave in a Western institution in a non-Western country: ‘Australian students keep to themselves’. ‘Australian’ could easily be replaced with ‘international’. Phan’s book provides us with a mirror to international education, thus giving us a broader picture of the vagaries of education as it evolves on the global stage.

Catherine Gomes is associate professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, Australia.