The role of the university in an era of global disruption

This is an introduction to NAFSA’s International Education in a Time of Global Disruption report (available free, including to non NAFSA members, here). The report contains four essays by Senior NAFSA Fellows. In the other four articles in this special report published by University World News, each of those fellows critiques one of his colleague’s essays.

“The university must combat convenient lies, deceptive ideologies, and hate speech. Withdrawing is not an alternative. Not now, when many global leaders insist on despising knowledge, attacking experts and denying the facts of the world. To the rampant anti-intellectualism, the university must respond by highlighting the importance of ideas and knowledge creation, not only as mere instruments, but as one of the most laudable ends of humanity.” – Alejandro Gaviria, rector of the Universidad de los Andes (2019; translated)

If there is any consensus in the field of international education, it is that times are truly changing. In almost any domain of human activity, old paradigms and frameworks are being challenged by the fascinating and unpredictable pace of change being experienced by economies and societies all over the world, and international education is no exception.

NAFSA has brought together thought-provoking reflections on how these changes affect higher education in its Senior Fellows essays which provide just a glimpse of the many complexities in today’s world that surround international education. It would be naïve for practitioners in the field to disregard or minimise the importance of issues and trends seemingly distant from the day-to-day duties and tasks of an international education office.

In general, the field of international education has experienced an evolutionary process of development punctuated by a few periods of instability, following a growth pattern along the lines of what Larry Greiner described almost 50 years ago for organisations in general in his Greiner Growth Model.

In international higher education, there have been different evolutionary stages (quiet periods of continuous growth without a major economic setback or severe internal disruption) and a few revolutionary stages (periods of substantial turbulence interspersed between smoother periods of evolution).

While international education as a professional field was almost negligible half a century ago when Greiner made his observations, his perspective is still relevant today.

Indeed, the current stage in international education is one of persistent growth; however, signals of turbulence in the environment are clearly present. But why should this matter to international educators and higher education institutions?

As Greiner admonished, “those that are unable to abandon past practices and effect major organisational changes are likely either to fold or to level off”. In fact, the successes achieved in making international education more central to the mission and priorities of higher education institutions have also created their fair share of problems.

Quoting from Greiner once more: “Those new practices eventually sow the seeds of their own decay and lead to another period of revolution.”

Not the usual business

Consequently, does it make sense to be concerned about universities being increasingly global while neglecting their role in local development? How much of the distortions in the use and abuse of global rankings as a proxy of the quality of universities is due to the excessive importance given to them by professionals in the field of international education?

Why should international educators speak out against targeting students due to their ethnicity or national origin? Why should migrants and refugees be considered a key component of international education?

These are among the key reasons why, while defining the scope of reflection of the 2018-19 cadre of NAFSA Senior Fellows, we decided to focus our analyses on key signals of disruption, hoping to trigger discussions among international education professionals on not the 'usual business', but rather the need to adapt.

John Hudzik’s contribution on the implications of internationalisation resulting from a pattern of higher education civic (dis)engagement provides an excellent starting point by making the case that colleges’ and universities’ excessive attention to global outreach and prestige can correlate with detachment from local community engagement.

Hudzik’s call for action in shifting the focus of international education towards the needs of the communities in which higher education institutions are located is among the many voices in the field of internationalisation that have been cautioning about the commodification of international education.

Uwe Brandenburg and colleagues have even come up with the term “internationalisation of higher education for society” in reference to strategies aimed at benefiting “the wider community, at home or abroad, through international or intercultural education, research, service and engagement”.

Hudzik’s essay insists on the need to connect the benefits of internationalisation to the community while balancing attention to the local and the global.

The reflection written by Ellen Hazelkorn helps readers see global university rankings in the wider context of higher education’s geopolitics. The issue is of utmost importance for international higher education practitioners because a commonly taken ‘easy road’ is to use them at convenience, publicising institutions to international students and scholars in furious competition for prestige and attractiveness.

Knowing, as Hazelkorn cautions, that rankings use controversial measures and are “insufficiently meaningful” raises a significant ethical dilemma for international education professionals, one that many are apprehensive to talk about.

Hazelkorn urges readers to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, rankings become an arbitrary unilateral decision made by rankers about what constitutes a good or a bad higher education institution, and that excessive emphasis on research-related indicators hinders institutional diversification and can diminish the importance of local engagement and community service.

The China threat

Jenny J Lee’s contribution touches another hot topic, which has emerged in recent years on the interface of international education, politics and ideology, mostly in the United States: the ‘China threat’.

In today’s political isolationist environment, positioning nationalism against internationalism has become the norm. Colleges and universities must stand together, gather evidence and speak loudly to show the multiple benefits of international education.

China has become one of the most important contributors of international students in the United States and many other countries. In a way, the significant demand for international education resulting from the inflow of Chinese students has invigorated and strengthened the offices of international education in many US colleges and universities.

As Lee emphasises, targeting students due to their ethnicity or national origin is a clear danger that international education professionals and their institutions should resist and confront.

Internationalisation through immigration

Finally, Bernhard Streitwieser reflects on the ancient but still not fully understood phenomenon of migration and the regrettable rhetoric that portrays immigrants and asylum-seekers as threats to national security.

But some readers may wonder, “Why does this matter to international education? Isn’t this an issue beyond our scope of work?” Streitwieser argues that migrants and refugees have a place in international education. The risk of being marginalised is quite high when only a small percentage have access to higher education.

While the number of ‘typical’ international students may fall in the United States, efforts toward properly integrating immigrants into higher education is an opportunity not to be missed, one that international educators can be more vocal in putting forward.

Together, the four thought-provoking commentaries from the 2018-19 NAFSA Senior Fellows, abridged for University World News, may serve as opportunities to reflect and act.

Global awareness

They highlight issues that are not always easy to discuss but for which proactive and responsible approaches are needed from the international education community.

More than ever, the role of international education is to meaningfully contribute to breaking down the barriers of intolerance and isolationism and to prepare future leaders with global awareness and a strong sense of community service.

In this current quandary of global disruption, more than ever, international education has the unique opportunity to become more central to the work of colleges and universities. As JW von Goethe wrote two centuries ago: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.” The road ahead is not so easy, but it is worth the walk.

Francisco Marmolejo is the World Bank’s global lead of tertiary education and, since July 2016, he has also served as the lead education specialist for India, based in Delhi. In his capacity as the World Bank’s most senior official in tertiary education, he serves as the institutional focal point on this topic and provides advice and support to country-level related projects that the World Bank has in more than 60 countries.