Why we need a politics of internationalisation for HE

In April an article was published in University World News which urged internationalisation scholars and practitioners to strengthen the social component of internationalisation. This social component is defined in the article as a commitment to practices that can develop higher education’s ability to both engage in and respond to global challenges.

Adding urgency to the call for an infusion of global social concerns into higher education’s internationalisation agenda is what the authors regard as a widespread global flowering of ideologies of xenophobia and hate speech. A hands-off approach to global social issues is particularly problematic, according to the authors, at a time when values such as peace and openness are being battered by rising storms of discrimination.

In highlighting a pressing need for practices that strengthen the social component of internationalisation, the authors hint at the failure of current conceptualisations of internationalisation to generate meaningful strategies for addressing global challenges. Their position stands in contrast to neoliberal interpretations which tend to prioritise internationalisation approaches that elevate power politics and money-making concerns above other issues.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Besides diagnosing a rather serious shortcoming of internationalisation, the article is a bit unclear on possible conditions that might produce a socially integrated form of internationalisation.

Currently, internationalisation is understood as practices which culminate in the incorporation of an international dimension into various activities of higher education. However, different perspectives exist around the world about what constitutes internationalisation, owing to the different strands of social, cultural and professional histories and values that mediate internationalisation activities.

If internationalisation is to evolve a stronger social consciousness, the path forward will have to come from a politics of internationalisation and not one dominated by neoliberal impulses.

That is because an internationalisation galvanised or motivated simply by financial concerns, competition and individual benefit is insufficient for the task of addressing serious global issues. Politics here refers to embodied sociocultural histories, values, norms, disciplinary traditions and personal experiences that intermix to both govern and guide action.

Political internationalisation

Political internationalisation has two central aims. First, it is fundamentally oriented toward producing practices that build awareness or recognition of internationalisation activity as something conditioned by ideas that are anchored in distinct social, cultural and professional histories and values.

Second, it includes critical analysis of practices, techniques and procedures that claim to generate judgment-free as well as bias-free strategies for social, cultural and political intercultural relations.

Political internationalisation serves the dual role of expanding our knowledge about the mediating role of agency with regard to social engagement and transformation while also providing a catalyst for the development of ideas that challenge the hegemony of neoliberal impulses that want to use universities for money-making strategies and power politics.

Individuals, groups and organisational behaviours are always mediated by social, cultural and professional histories and values. A political internationalisation is needed to understand the influence of agency on internationalisation activities. Political internationalisation foregrounds agency, its conditioned nature, as well as a better understanding of the histories that influence, govern and motivate internationalisation activities.

It makes critique and greater self-awareness more important by subjecting processes, procedures and techniques that claim to liberate intercultural interactions from professional, cultural, social and political biases to critical evaluation.

Putting agency at the forefront of internationalisation also opens the door to a Maslowian analysis of internationalisation, allowing the influence of psychology, emotional needs and concerns about safety and belonging to be captured.

With virulent social issues such as racism, discrimination, nationalism and xenophobia on the rise in different parts of the globe, a socially conscious internationalisation, one especially attuned to global challenges, is possible only with a politics of internationalisation.

A self-critical approach

Internationalisation must therefore prioritise the role of agency if it is to create a stronger social component. A stronger social component comes from an awareness of the social, cultural and political attitudes that underlie expressions of internationalisation.

The role of universities is to design education conditions, administrative practices, teaching and learning spaces as well as to organise experiences and interactions that build critical awareness of the conditioned nature of agency and an ongoing commitment to critical analysis of practices that claim to disentangle internationalisation agency from the influence of political, cultural and professional biases.

The failure of neoliberal internationalisation to generate meaningful strategies for social engagement outside of recruitment, financial gains and power politics is causing serious doubts about whether internationalisation as presently constituted can produce effective strategies for addressing global challenges.

Through understanding the crucial mediating role of agency and self-awareness in the manifestation of internationalisation, a political internationalisation can open the door to the emergence of a more socially grounded view of internationalisation.

Without a politics of internationalisation, the characteristics and tone of internationalisation discourse will remain vulnerable to neoliberal ideas that tend to crowd out concerns that do not align perfectly with its power politics and money-making agenda.

Abu Kamara is a higher education researcher and commentator. Twitter: @Abu__Kamara.