Universities’ globalness is unequal and undemocratic

The big problem with the world’s university system is not that universities are parochial and need to be internationalised. The university system is already global. The big problem is that its globalness is unequal and undemocratic. We need to do global differently.

Internationalisation is not a new trend. European powers began to set up colonial universities and colleges four and a half centuries ago. Some early colonial colleges, strikingly, did incorporate local knowledge systems. But colonial higher education was mainly intended to serve imperial power. Mostly the new colleges followed European curricula and trained professional workforces: clerics, lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats and teachers.

When the old empires were replaced by independent states and the global capitalist economy we know today, universities multiplied tremendously. But the Eurocentric knowledge system remained dominant in the postcolonial world. The result is a worldwide hierarchy of universities which share basic features of organisation, curriculum and teaching methods. They embody a common system of knowledge, mainly expressed through the academic disciplines.

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This standard model of a university underpins the global league tables (whether those of Times Higher Education, QS or Shanghai) and most other metrics. It underpins the market in fee-paying overseas students, and the offshore colleges in the Caribbean, the Gulf states and elsewhere.

The standard model is both preached and practised by the transnational corporations that sell ‘best practice’ and online management systems to universities around the world, such as Salesforce’s 50 social media best practices for universities.

The quest for a democratic model

But this kind of globalisation has also fed hostility to universities. Authoritarian political forces, such as the Viktor Orbán government in Hungary and the Jair Bolsonaro government in Brazil, are targeting universities.

The humanities and social sciences especially are pictured as carriers of elitism, cosmopolitanism and subversion. It is worrying that this rhetoric – sometimes including attacks on climate science, evolutionary biology or gender studies – has gained so much support. Finding a different, democratic model of internationalisation has become urgent.

This is a problem for universities of the Global North, but the issue looms bigger for the Global South. Here, the meaning of globalisation is an existential issue for universities.

A counter-tradition insists there are multiple knowledge formations, not just one. This can be recognised in curricula. The great Bengali poet and educator Rabindranath Tagore set up an experimental college on this basis in the 1920s, called Visva-Bharati. He conceived it as a place for encounter between different systems of knowledge.

There are many current examples of universities that reach across knowledge boundaries.

Both Islamic scholarship and secular research-based knowledge are combined in Al-Azhar University and other universities in the Muslim world.

In Latin America there are 10 or more universities that build their curricula, at least in part, on indigenous knowledge.

In Africa the task of decolonising university teaching has been debated since the 1970s. Ali Mazrui and Ngugi wa Thiong'o were early advocates; Achille Mbembe has reflected on the issue recently in "Decolonising the University: New directions".

A system based on recognition and inclusion

These encounters are not easy. They involve different ways of organising knowledge, different forms of authority and different social purposes. Though difficult, they are important. They foreshadow a global university system based on recognition and inclusion, rather than hierarchy and hegemony. And they show that there are quite practical ways of teaching across knowledge systems.

In research, too, globalisation is already a reality. Climate science, to take just one example, draws data from every continent and every ocean. It must, to feed those gigantic computer models of the atmosphere. In most disciplines there’s a worldwide economy of knowledge.

But it’s an economy based on unequal exchange. Almost all of the climate models are based in rich countries of the Global North. So are most of the research universities, institutes, government agencies, journals, libraries and databanks, where knowledge in every discipline is collated, and theory and methods are developed.

In the mainstream economy of knowledge, the postcolonial world – where the majority of the world’s people live – serves mainly as a gigantic data mine. Streams of information are exported for processing in the North. This too is an old pattern, found right through the history of modern science.

Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin did some of the remote data-collecting themselves. Most, however, has been done by local workforces, who are essential to the economy of knowledge but marginal in decision-making and recognition.

Equal exchange

So there is a democratic deficit in research, when we see it on a world scale. The global economy of knowledge needs redesign to replace unequal with equal exchange.

A concrete example: the most prestigious current HIV/AIDS treatment studies need large data-sets. The funding came mostly from the United States, but large affected populations are mostly in Africa. The result has been a classic neocolonial data flow.

South African researchers now insist that resources for analysis and interpretation should also be located in the South. They have achieved some redistribution of resources. One result has been a large increase in publications from South African researchers in this field in the last 10 years.

That’s a case of reshaping South-North links. There’s increasing discussion of the potential of South-South links too.

A notable example is the Brazilian-based bibliographical database SciELO, which challenges Northern-centred ones like Web of Science. SciELO is now also being developed in Africa.

A number of indigenous-knowledge universities in Latin America have linked up in a network known as RUIICAY (their statements are worth reading, for people unfamiliar with this issue).

There are programmes between universities in Africa for building research capacities and initiatives in Asia to share curricula that highlight Southern intellectual work.

Challenging the commercialised, Northern-centred model of university globalisation does not mean huddling in national bunkers. It is a project that can be open, inclusive and diverse: part of the democratic renewal of universities.

Raewyn Connell is professor emerita at the University of Sydney, Australia, and author of The Good University.