Transnational education and the neo-colonial disguise

How do we make sense of transnational education? Through the adoption of critical multidisciplinary lenses coupled with a long commitment to exploring new epistemological, methodological, conceptual and pedagogical understandings, Professor Phan Le-Ha has pushed us to a space that demands that the scholarly study of transnational education proactively question itself.

Her recent thought-provoking book, Transnational Education Crossing ‘Asia’ and ‘the West’: Adjusted desire, transformative mediocrity and neo-colonial disguise, is a further attempt to do so.

For Phan, we need to change the logic, semantics, grammar, punctuation and discourse we use to make sense of complex phenomena such as transnational education. From her multidisciplinary vantage point, Phan challenges a widely made and often unquestioned claim that the current intellectual and policy infrastructures of higher education in Asia and the Middle East have been dominated and imposed by the West.

She problematises the ‘victimised Asia’ discourse expressed in several ways and in different disciplinary domains, including sociology, anthropology, history, economics, politics, cultural studies, colonial studies and education.

Asia, more broadly, has long been depicted as an emblem of victimisation, often in black and white relationships with and against ‘the West’, in much scholarship on the internationalisation of higher education, de-imperialisation, de-Westernisation, post-colonial studies, de-colonisation, ‘neo-colonialism’, internationalisation, English-isation, globalisation and transnational education.

This position has also been taken by Phan in some of her previous scholarly work, as she has acknowledged. Yet, in this book, Phan “is trying to understand better the intersecting spaces of knowledge, where the West and Asia can be examined in their flesh and blood complexities, unchained from the usual colonial and post-colonial imprisonment mindset”.

Throughout the book, Phan identifies, discusses and theorises the following phenomena:
  • • The planned, evolving and transformative mediocrity behind the endorsement of English-medium education legitimised by the interactive Asia-the West relationship;

  • • The strategic employment of the terms ‘Asia/Asian’ and ‘West/Western’ by all stakeholders in their perceptions and construction of choice, quality, rigour, reliability and attractiveness of programmes, courses and locations;

  • • The desire for an imagined (and often mythical) ‘West’ among various stakeholders of transnational education; and

  • • The assigned and self-realised ownership of English by otherwise normally on-the-margin groups of speakers.
Phan convincingly and consistently demonstrates the pervasive mediocrity in the English-medium transnational education contexts examined in the book. She shows how and in what ways such mediocrity has been institutionalised, legitimised and justified by transnational education stakeholders who, in one way or another, all (re)create, participate in and are subject to the interactive Asia-West relationship.

She has theorised such mediocrity as “planned, evolving and transformative” and discusses these contradictory aspects of mediocrity throughout the book.

Her argument and theorisation of mediocrity as being “evolving and transformative” brings to the fore nuanced understandings of unexpected transformations that are experienced, lived and expressed by marginalised individuals in transnational education.

The “planned” mediocrity in English-medium transnational education may, surprisingly, lead to unexpected transformations, as marginalised individuals progress in their study and suddenly realise that their English proficiency – however modest it may be – could leverage their social and academic status in a mediocre context. Their sense of ownership of English is largely self-discovered when they are made and-or become aware of others’ desire for their English.


I would like to focus her on the ways in which the book invites us to re-conceptualise the clear-cut relations between ‘the coloniser’ and ‘the colonised’ in the context of transnational education.

Under the spell of transnational education and influenced by the strategic use of terms such as ‘East-West’ as well as ‘Asia’ and ‘the West’ by different players on both sides, Phan argues that Western higher education products, goods and services are being sold as a package trip to the promised global outlook in Asian countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and in the Middle East to countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In these contexts, the crooked rhetoric that enables transnational education as a point of arrival at this global outlook lurks behind the fact that “the West and Asia need one another more than ever in the context of internationalisation and commercialisation of higher education”.

At the same time, as Phan has nicely puts it, players in ‘Asia’ “experienced multiple relations with the West, and they were always pushed and pulled by their own interests, calculations and aspirations. Not everyone resisted and fought against the colonial power; in fact, collaboration was rather common and many locals were also colonialists and power seekers themselves”.

This very conflicting position is evidenced in all the higher education contexts and settings she examines throughout the book: Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This suggests that as educators we need to analyse colonialism from relational perspectives in the context of higher education in order to further conceptualise its ethical, political, epistemological, cultural and theoretical consequences in particular communities.

This new and challenging line of inquiry in the field of transnational education is one of the major and timely contributions of this book to the growing debates on transnational education, student mobility, internationalisation of higher education, university globalisation and the like.

Osman Z Barnawi is Associate Professor at the Royal Commission Colleges and Institutes, Yanbu, Saudi Arabia. Professor Phan Le-Ha’s book, Transnational Education Crossing ‘Asia’ and ‘the West’: Adjusted desire, transformative mediocrity and neo-colonial disguise, is published by Routledge.