A better way forward for transnational higher education

As I pen this commentary from my office at the National University of Singapore or NUS – my alma mater and summer academic home – I have been notified that NUS has emerged 11th in the Quacquarelli Symonds or QS World University Rankings and reclaimed its position as Asia’s number one university.

Tellingly, however, the top 10 universities are based in the West: five are in the United States, and the other five are European institutions. And while NUS has much to celebrate, having climbed steadily in the rankings over the past decade, it is also engaged in joint ventures with Duke University and Yale University to enhance its medical and liberal arts education programme, respectively.

Such a joint arrangement, which is representative of transnational education (TNE), is the focus of Professor Phan Le-Ha’s recent book, Transnational Education Crossing ‘Asia’ and ‘the West’.

Top-ranked universities like NUS and other middling Asian institutions, according to Phan, appear to have a fascination with Western universities, resulting in the latter exporting versions of their educational model abroad by establishing overseas campuses in China, Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Vietnam.

TNE has, however, also drawn its fair share of criticisms as sceptics have been quick to point out that the practice of exporting Western models of higher education to Asian countries constitutes a form of neocolonialism; more often than not, host countries are coerced into granting concessions and providing resources such as land to create these satellite campuses.

Another unfavourable outcome is the ostensible exploitation of its students who, as Phan notes, may receive a mediocre education. Equally disturbing is how some TNE students are individuals who are merely biding their time as they await degree completion and future employment at the home countries of these degree-granting universities.

In other words, both the host institution and host country become stepping stones as these students aspire to eventually move on to the West.

Neoliberalism and TNE

As a critical applied linguist who studies issues of power, and inequality associated language-related issues to better understand their roles in the lives of individuals and conditions in society, I am particularly disturbed by the neoliberal turn that characterises TNE.

For one, students are generally viewed as customers in this financially lucrative enterprise where English is often the medium of instruction. As a consequence, English becomes a commodity, a means toward realising an end that can potentially have negative social implications.

One major implication is the reification of the (white) Western native English instructor whose variety of English and race are valued over the local variety of English used by local instructors. Put simply, a negative outcome of TNE is that it can promote institutional racism through the adoption of ‘rent-a-foreigner’ hiring practices. More often than not, these foreign instructors are also paid more than their local counterparts to do the same job.

Best of both worlds

As real as these ill effects of TNE may be, Phan reminds us that we should not to be too quick to subscribe to an Asian-as-victim trope. After all, some Asian universities are themselves complicit in perpetuating an asymmetrical relationship by electing, for example, to hire token white foreign instructors who might not be formally trained to deliver instruction.

Other Asian-based institutions might not hesitate to use the West-Asia paradox to their advantage by advertising that TNE allows students to enjoy a Western education while being ensconced in Asian values. TNE is thus promoted as a way of preserving one’s Asian values against the insidious cultural influence of the demonised West, an opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Understandably, Asian universities have much to be proud of. In the latest QS rankings mentioned earlier, four other institutions made the top 25 list: Nanyang Technological University (12), Tsinghua University (17), the University of Tokyo (23) and the University of Hong Kong (25).

The strong performances of Asian universities will probably improve in the future, buoyed by the brain circulation that Asia is experiencing. Many Western-trained academics are returning home, drawn by the attractive remuneration offered by improved local universities. In the long term, the internal ‘Westernisation’ of local universities fuelled by faculty returnees may erode the allure of TNE.

Cooperation rather than competition

Rather than being bound by the West-Asia binary, Phan recommends that TNE institutions adopt a less antagonistic stance and instead “engag[e] with a multidimensional, pro-West and practical-minded Asia”.

This is a valid point because competition can co-exist with cooperation, and cooperation will be essential if TNE is to survive and thrive. However, Western universities need to see the value of such cooperation because some are wary of ceding their rights to overseas campuses and diluting their brand name.

I think that any reservations these institutions might have need to be actively assuaged, with deliberate attempts made to preserve intellectual property rights and maintain academic standards. Intellectual espionage is without a doubt a contemporary reality, and institutions are right to be cautious about leaked content.

However, the solution is not to curtail TNE or, relatedly, restrict graduate student admission of Asian students to Western institutions on the grounds of national security. Instead, stricter measures need to be put in place to safeguard an equitable two-way exchange of knowledge and ideas.

Steps also need to be taken to tackle institutional racism and to value the expertise local talent can bring to TNE institutions. Rather than populating these institutions with ‘foreign’ talent, joint venture campuses should hire capable multilingual local faculty who are well versed with English as an international lingua franca, and thus do their part in facilitating global brain circulation.

At a time when multilateralism appears to be in jeopardy, TNE can take a leadership role in connecting institutions and people.

Unfortunately, university rankings do matter, and it is increasingly difficult to escape the audit culture that pervades higher education. What TNE needs to do is to design measures that will foster genuine cross-institutional collaboration and cooperation. If designed well, this could become a valuable template for other educational crossings, not just between the West and Asia.

Peter I De Costa is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics, Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages at Michigan State University, United States. Transnational Education Crossing ‘Asia’ and ‘the West’ by Phan Le-Ha is published by Routledge.