TNE in HE is about collaboration, not neo-colonialism

Peter De Costa's article “A better way forward for transnational higher education” raises issues around transnational education (TNE) that my university does not support at any of its four international presences which include fully fledged independent campuses as well as a substantial presence on the campuses of a foreign partner.

The latter model would not even exist if it weren’t for our collaborative stance and cooperation with our institutional partners. If we are the only exception to the caricature sketched by De Costa I would be amazed.

Maybe we are just a step ahead of the desirable role that De Costa foreshadows at the end of his article – with which I wholeheartedly agree – about the need for cooperation as equals. That would not surprise me since we established our TNE efforts at about the turn of the century, well ahead of most institutions that have followed in our footsteps.

The article begins with a treatise on how the National University of Singapore (NUS) has risen through the ranks in the global university league tables, much of this attributable to its research prowess and acclaim, depending on the ranking metrics.

It continues by claiming that the fascination of top-ranked Asian universities with Western universities is somehow linked to the motivation of the latter to export their education in the form of overseas campuses.

This is an interesting viewpoint. Here was me thinking that it was at the invitation of host governments via enabling legislation or other mechanisms. Somewhere the key local university players became involved.

Nevertheless, while ranking has a predominant research focus, NUS has engaged in joint ventures with Duke and Yale universities to enhance its education which is another important role of universities that is separated from the cutting-edge research that gets a university a high placing in most global rankings.

Global brain circulation

Next De Costa states that he is particularly disturbed with the neoliberal turn that characterises TNE, which includes the idea of students being customers in a financially lucrative enterprise driven by the commodification of English as a medium of instruction and the reifying of white (Western) native English instructors at the expense of local counterparts capable of doing the same job.

Maybe my university is an exception, although I very much think not, since we employ local academics in preference to staff recruited from our largest campus in the Netherlands or from the Netherlands generally whenever we can.

Institutional racism is something we actively counter as it is totally contrary to what we stand for. We hold annual conferences where staff from all campuses (the Netherlands, South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia and Qatar) work together to improve education on all of our sites.

This is not neo-colonialism, but collaboration with input from all concerned to strengthen our education offering wherever it is delivered. Much time is spent ensuring that the quality of our education is the same on all campuses. It is far from mediocre.

This is further enhanced by staff exchange or global brain circulation, which is limited only by the time that individual staff members can afford to be away from their home environment. Staff who take part in the exchange are internationally mobile and spend time on other campuses to broaden and enrich their professional lives. There is no North-South thinking in this.

Staff from an international branch campus (IBC) discover that what they are doing in terms of teaching at their home campus is well matched with the teaching and learning at the original campus in the Netherlands. Any last remnants of uncertainty about their ability to deliver vanishes like snow in the sun.

Staff from the original home campus discover that there is much to be learned from their colleagues at the IBCs.

Our students, who are three times more inter-campus mobile than those going on an international exchange, have led the way in this. They have been able to explore opportunities not available on their home campus, both in terms of study and living.

Collaboration and cooperation

As for TNE being a financially lucrative venture, most colleagues I have spoken to who are involved in the management of IBCs tell tales of how the IBC might be financially sound, but certainly not the money spinner it was (maybe) thought to be at the outset. The road to being able to maintain an IBC that is financially sound is littered with examples of failure.

Recently, my university decided to take the matter of campus equality a step further. While I have used the words ‘international branch campuses’ in this article, this has been for the sake of reader convenience and ease of understanding. In fact, we are moving away from the use of the word ‘branch’ and prefer our institution be known as a multi-campus university.

This has nothing to do with delusions of grandeur and everything to do with starting a dialogue with our campuses all over the world in which, and this should appeal to any linguists, at the outset we consider each campus as an equal partner. We want this to be clear in the way we speak about and with one another.

Robert Coelen is director of the Centre for Internationalisation of Education, a collaborative project of the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, an institution with, or on, campuses in five countries around the world (the Netherlands, South Africa, Qatar, Thailand and Indonesia).