The new geopolitics of international higher education

Shifting global politics and rising global challenges are directly impacting on higher education around the world. These transformations are characterised by weaknesses in global governance, mounting backlashes to multilateralism and free trade, a resurgence of political populism, nationalism and authoritarianism, the balance of global power being seen to swing towards Asia, climate-related emergencies and growing demands for reparative social justice.

As these currents swirl, we also see the embedding and further expansion of international student recruitment, regional alliances, academic mobility schemes and international branch campuses. The interconnectedness between higher education institutions and national systems is intensifying, characterised by a sharpening of trans-border cooperation and competition alongside a heightened nexus between higher education and global forces.

With the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding, 2020 represented a watershed moment for global politics – a moment that continues presently. We are increasingly aware of the role of the pandemic in both illuminating and intensifying the changes and challenges that have prompted critical transformations to the geopolitical landscape.

The new geopolitics of international higher education

These trends, which Hannah Moscovitz and Emma Sabzalieva are calling the new geopolitics of international higher education, were explored during a Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) seminar on 22 June (presenter slides and video recording available here). The seminar was also an opportunity to present ongoing work that will be published as a special issue of the journal Globalisation, Societies and Education in early 2022.

At the seminar, Emma Sabzalieva gave two recent examples to illustrate the impact of the new geopolitics on international higher education.

In Hungary, a protest was held on 5 June against the plans of China’s Fudan University to open a campus in the capital city. While these plans had been in the works for some time, matters came to a head when it was revealed that the campus was to be built on a site previously earmarked for student housing and that Hungarian taxpayers would foot the bill for the construction.

At nearly US$1.7 billion, this is more than Hungary spends on its 24 public universities combined.

Since the protest, the government has been forced to make a rare U-turn, promising a referendum on the issue after next year’s general elections. Meanwhile, Budapest district mayor Krisztina Baranyi has renamed streets near the proposed campus site, for example, Dalai Lama Road and Free Hong Kong Road, to show solidarity with human rights campaigners in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

These events bring into focus several of the geopolitical currents noted above. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a prominent populist whose government has cosied up to illiberal leaders in the PRC while simultaneously snubbing Europe and the European Union’s democratic norms. The recent expulsion of the Central European University to neighbouring Austria shows that Orbán considers international higher education to be part of the problem, not the solution.

However, the recent protest added a twist to the story. Protesters were not on the streets in support of Hungary’s turn away from the West and towards China, but rather in an expression both of fear of a more powerful China and out of nationalistic concerns for local higher education development.

Social justice movements

The day after the Hungarian protest, another peaceful protest was held in Toronto, Canada, in response to the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. These so-called ‘schools’ were in fact genocidal acts that forcibly removed Indigenous children in the name of ‘assimilation’.

The protest culminated with the toppling of a statue of Egerton Ryerson – one of the architects of the residential school system – located on the campus of a Toronto university bearing his name.

As in Hungary, the interweaving of international movements and issues with domestic concerns is clearly visible.

Similar social justice discourses around how higher education should deal with its colonial past have been seen recently in South Africa’s #MustFall movements and the United States Black Lives Matter protests which spread around the world. These movements have come together with ongoing calls for genuine reconciliation for Indigenous people directly on sites of higher education.

Complicity in national immigration policies

While these snapshots of two timely and concrete manifestations link the new geopolitics and international higher education, other connections present more incrementally. For example, Lisa Brunner’s work, also presented at the CGHE seminar, takes up the impact of evolving connections between higher education and immigration.

As a result of this intertwining, higher education now plays a significant yet under-unacknowledged role in state migration regimes, supporting the selection, surveillance, settlement and retention of migrants. This raises questions not only about higher education’s social responsibility, but also its complicity in state migration regimes.

Higher education’s intensifying involvement in surveillance carries particularly significant implications. The collection and reporting of international student enrolment status, classroom attendance and other data for governments are now mandatory in many top international student-recruiting countries, despite remaining largely invisible and poorly understood.

Although the systematic modern surveillance of international students arose during the hyper-securitised post-9/11 era, it is now used as a disciplinary tool to distinguish between economically beneficial ‘legitimate’ students and more economically risky low-wage workers, even as the policy difference between students and permanent immigrants continues to blur.

Higher education’s surveillance of international students exemplifies the everyday practices which normalise, depoliticise and institutionalise border imperialism. Like many Global North countries, in Canada – where Lisa Brunner’s study is grounded – both surveillance and borders have long impacted Indigenous and racialised people unevenly, reifying difference in the service of white supremacy, empire and-or the settler-colonial state.

Yet surveillance – particularly of foreign nationals, as the current pandemic also brings to light – has become so naturalised, oftentimes it is not only accepted but expected. Higher education’s ability to resist is compromised by its dependence on the state to issue visas to international students.

By studying the impact of these new geopolitical shifts on international higher education, we seek to unsettle some of the conventional wisdoms that dominate this field. How the idea of ‘geopolitics’ is applied to the study of international higher education is one important area of investigation.

Another brings together different disciplinary lenses (for example, from geography, politics or international relations, decoloniality and migration studies). And there is a real need to better understand the role of higher education – systemically, institutionally and individually – in shaping the new geopolitics of our changing world.

Emma Sabzalieva is a senior policy analyst at the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) and a research associate at York University, Canada. Hannah Moscovitz is a postdoctoral research fellow at the faculty of education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Lisa Brunner is a PhD candidate in educational studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant.