International higher education must reject neocolonialism

Nothing stays the same. Some researchers see international higher education as a freeze-frame picture, susceptible to linear measures and predictions. I see an open Heraclitan ontology in which higher education and its settings are always changing, always becoming, ultimately in non-linear fashion. Now the future seems more open, and more troubled.

Post-1945 higher education, framed by the United States as senior partner and Europe as junior partner, is giving way to greater complexity. Worldwide power is pluralising. Differences between countries, and civilisations or ‘traditions’, are more insistent. This is the certainty in uncertainty. The inevitability of difference.

This is not a bad thing because it begins to free up the world, multiplying our vision and practice. It is difficult for Western nations and universities to share power, but global differences were always there. What has changed is that the difference is now obvious and demands that we rethink the global order.

This is happening at a challenging time. Certain cshallenges arise where the pluralisation of power meets unilateral national interest. Consider geo-political tensions. A rogue Russian state is devastating higher education in Ukraine and Russia. A US government determined to maintain global supremacy is transforming American engagement with China from mutual cooperation to mutual strategic threat and the decoupling of technology. The decoupling of economies and higher education may follow.

China talks of a shared future. As Henry Kissinger remarked to The Economist recently, nothing in China’s tradition suggests a desire for world domination. But China wants respect for its civilisation and world role. It wants unchallengeable sovereignty and to shred the century of humiliation. It wants authority on its borders and in its region.

This is incompatible with US hegemony, especially in Asia. Meanwhile, other nations and higher education are dragged into the vortex.

Cross-border academic mobility is under pressure. Research collaboration is being over-determined by national security. AI and machine learning generate a shared set of problems but could become tools of geopolitical rivalry.

From existential questions to hope

Higher education also faces existential questions at its core. Inequalities between countries have decreased, as state building and economic modernisation have spread, but neoliberal policy worsens inequalities within countries. This blocks widespread social mobility – and higher education is blamed.

Perhaps governments focused on ‘employability’ are losing faith in institutional higher education, whereby students form themselves via immersion in complex knowledges, over several years, a process more cultural than economic.

Meanwhile, climate science is being ideologically undermined by big capital. We cannot solve geo-political tensions, inequality, faltering capitalism and ecological destruction solely from higher education. Yet higher education and knowledge, and international educational cooperation, are sources of hope.

We incubate critical thinking and creativity. We generate and codify new knowledge. We know technology. We foster international understanding. We can build reflexive graduate agency touched by inclusion, multiplicity and justice. We could expand epistemic diversity.

Research by the Centre for Global Higher Education in 11 countries has found common support for the role of higher education in furthering public good, despite the neoliberal times.

Building higher education capacity across the world is a win-win for all.

The role of CIHE

Enter Philip G Altbach and the Boston College Center for International Higher Education (CIHE). CIHE was founded in a conviction about building higher education on a worldwide basis, especially the autonomous research university with its teaching and research nexus.

CIHE is the world’s leading centre for information and discussion about higher education not just because of the acumen, energy and range of its directors and the work of all who have spent time at the Center, but because of its foundational commitment to higher education everywhere.

And also, I think, a keen understanding of and empathy for relations of power and inequality in higher education.

Altbach is without question the world’s leading scholar in international higher education and has been for most of his career. You only have to look at the Google Scholar citation count and listen to the people from all over the world who say – I have so often heard this – “Dr Altbach spoke at our conference, and he understood our situation”. He understood.

A remarkable part of Altbach’s foundational vision is his early work on neocolonialism in the context of the changing higher education world. Out of the vast corpus of Altbach’s work, let me highlight three articles.

The first are two papers prior to CIHE. These studies of neocolonialism were path-breaking in Euro-American (that is, Western) higher education studies.

In 1914 more than 90% of the earth’s surface was occupied, controlled or shaped by Euro-American powers and Imperial Japan. This is fundamental to understanding modern higher education, and international higher education. While other scholars took Western control for granted, Altbach problematised it.

In 1971 Altbach’s paper “Education and neocolonialism” explains how Western powers sustain themselves in their former colonies through the shaping of education and intellectual life.

In the colonial period, he says, “indigenous cultures, in many cases highly developed, were virtually ignored by colonial educational policy”. After independence, “the political and cultural biases of Western education remain, and … impede the creation of national consciousness”.

Altbach discusses English and French as languages of instruction, West-subsidised textbooks, scholarships that bring students to the neo-imperial centre and focus their attention on the international scholarly community not home, subsidised institutions that are clones of foreign models, and Western teachers and advisers.

Research on emerging countries is mostly done by Western scholars, who treat those countries merely as ‘mines’ for data. Local scholars should play a larger role.

“Educational assistance is generally linked to an underlying political or ideological tenet,” Altbach states. He concludes by calling for equity, an end to Western domination, and recognition of global interdependence.

In 1977 Altbach wrote Servitude of the mind? Education, dependency, and neocolonialism, a paper which expands on the earlier discussion. There is also a new strand, a realpolitik, in which educational inequality reflects larger structures. However, the conclusion is more agentic, calling for a break from the “servitude of the mind”, “independent sources of intellectual power” that can “serve indigenous needs”.

Altbach’s courage in making this early critique should not be forgotten. Many in the West who were disturbed by colonialism saw it as secondary, more in the past than the present. I did myself for much of my career. Altbach rightly saw it as primary.

The third Altbach article is the 2007 paper Peripheries and centres: Research universities in developing countries. Here Altbach advocates capacity building in emerging countries, while again positioning it in a centre-periphery realpolitik.

Research universities are rare outside the global ‘centre’ but vital. Otherwise, knowledge will remain a monopoly of the rich countries. Research universities link emerging countries to global science and scholarship and are essential to economic and social development.

The article explains the how of building research universities. While “research universities must … function in the international language of science and scholarship”, states Altbach, they should also “disseminate research and knowledge in local languages”.

But how high can emerging countries go? Most, states Altbach, can at best aspire to “second-rank but quite distinguished” universities on a par with Indiana in the US, York in England, or Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

The article was right to foreground emerging research universities. Yet it now seems somewhat pessimistic, constrained by the realpolitik of the time.

Understanding global inequalities

In these papers Altbach advances three explanatory frameworks for understanding global inequalities. One is neocolonialism. The other two are dependency and centre-periphery.

Altbach sees dependency and the centre-periphery structure as ‘normal’, in that they reflect “the prevailing patterns of power and wealth in the world”. In that context not all Western aid is coercive or exploitative, it simply reflects this inevitable inequality. But here questions arise.

First, as Altbach’s work has already shown, the key to the colonial mindset is not bad intentions, violence or unequal economic transfers. These are symptoms and not confined to colonialism.

The key to colonialism is the conviction of Western racial or cultural superiority and the ‘othering’ of the colonised.

It is the claim to superiority that suborns non-Western agency and culture. From that claim all else follows: the idea that there is one path to modernisation, the Western or American path, that all must follow; the belief that Western higher education is wiser and the science more creative; the belief non-Western persons can be managed, manipulated and coerced for their own good.

Of the three concepts, dependency, centre-periphery and neocolonialism, only Altbach’s neocolonialism provides an historicised explanation of global inequality, a causal narrative that leaves room for resistance and change. It calls up the agency and responsibility of both coloniser and colonised.

In contrast, the realpolitik ideas of dependency and centre-periphery make inequality inevitable. These are static descriptors that say nothing about cause and effect, or agency and responsibility. Using them as an explanation, rather than an illustration, entrenches global inequalities.

Ironically, rather than mirroring so-called ‘natural’ inequalities, the centre-periphery model in fact naturalises the global inequalities inherited from colonialism.

In short, Altbach is right about colonialism, but I am less comfortable with centre-periphery. Immanuel Wallerstein, the main theorist of the model, saw the centre-periphery structure as set in stone. He said it was very difficult to move from the periphery to the intermediate semi-periphery or to the global centre.

The West would command the global centre for the foreseeable future. This implies that higher education will always rotate around an American global centre with secondary partners in Europe and Japan and outliers in Israel, Australia, etc.

But the problem with judgments based on realpolitik is that Heraclitus was right. Everything changes. In higher education, the centre-periphery model is already obsolete.

Economic and political power are pluralising. The world will not return to the American hegemony of 1945 or 1995.

The US is overwhelmingly dominant only in the military sphere. Large and middle-sized non-Western countries are gathering strength – not only China and India but Iran, South Korea, Brazil, Indonesia and others. It is now apparent that there are many paths to modernisation.

The US retains global leadership in institutional higher education, in some fields of science, and in research norms. But more than 60 countries enrol half their young people in tertiary education and the same number of countries have self-reproducing science systems.

The impact of pluralisation

One place to see this diversification is global science. Note that ‘global science’ refers to selected English language science, not all knowledge. It excludes other languages and traditions. The real diversity in knowledge is much greater than in Scopus. I use bibliometric measures here simply to show that centre-periphery has collapsed amid pluralisation.

Since 1996 global science papers have grown by more than five per cent per year. By joining the global networks new researchers and science countries gain access to immense resources. Growth in China, India and the rest of the world has been especially rapid.

Output in China now exceeds the US. India has passed Germany, UK and Japan to become the third largest producer.

The science systems that after 1996 grew more slowly than the world average rate of 5.15% per annum are mostly established systems in wealthier Western countries. Those systems where science output is growing faster than the world average are mostly new science powers.

Some growth is spectacular – almost 20% per year in Iran, almost 25% in Indonesia. And look at the diversification in economic terms. Half these countries have income per head below the world average. Global science has spread to middle-income and some low-income countries.

Moreover, in the comparison of individual universities in terms of volume of published papers in 2017-2020, 11 of the 16 individual universities that produced the most papers in 2017-2020 are in China. What’s more we see that in 12th position is the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil while Korea’s Seoul National University is in 16th place.

In the comparison of universities on the basis of their number of highly cited (top 5%) papers, we find that , while the Anglophone universities still lead in highly cited science – in the top 16 there are eight from the US, four other Anglophone countries and four from China – China is rising. Five years earlier there were 12 from the US and none from China. On current trends Tsinghua will soon be second to Harvard.

Further, in high citation papers in physical sciences and engineering alone, Tsinghua is number one with 988 papers. MIT is the top American with 633.

Ten of the leading 14 universities in those disciplines are from China, two from the US. US science has not declined. Rather, China’s science, fed by accelerated state funding, has moved up. On the other hand, in research in biomedicine and health, 11 of the first 14 universities are American and all are Anglophone.

So has an American hegemony been replaced by a US-China duopoly that is going through divorce? I don’t think so. You’ve seen the growth in newer science systems. Europe is also becoming stronger in leading science because of EU funding. There is more diversification of research capacity to come.

Epistemic and organisational diversification will follow. In the future there will be various fusions of Euro-American models with different indigenous elements.

Towards a shared moral order

What are the normative implications of all this? I see three implications. First, decoupling be damned. It is imperative that all engage with higher education in China because of its global importance.

But we non-Chinese people need to change how we understand China. We need to stop seeing China through Western lenses.

After two years in China, the US philosopher John Dewey, returning to Altbach’s alma mater the University of Chicago, stated that China can be understood only in terms of itself, not when using a Western frame of reference.

Likewise, the Harvard historian of China John Firbank states: “Our first requirement, if we are to understand China, is to try to avoid imposing a European scale of judgement.”

There are many similarities between Chinese and American universities. Yet China will not become Western.

China has a long tradition, combining Imperial scholarship and statecraft, Confucian self-cultivation, Sinic families and guanxi and Western influences, including Marxist-Leninism, US culture and neoliberalism. All affect higher education.

When many Westerners see China they see the party-state as a subtraction from freedom. But the state, not the market, has always been central in China, and the state is productive as well as reductive. There is deep grassroots agency and initiative in higher education within the frame of top-down control. This is paradoxical in the West, but not in China.

Secondly, we should abandon the long effort to bolt down a worldwide description of ‘internationalisation’, defined by Jane Knight as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension” into post-secondary education.

This now commonplace wording conceals many problems. The mantra ‘internationalisation good, globalisation bad’ is questionable geography, and inadvertently ties higher education to regressive geo-political and commercial agendas.

The universalising definition also reinforces the global hierarchy. The standard definition is non-relational, focusing on qualities and activities of the self without regard for the effects on others. Hence when used in Euro-American systems, it automatically becomes Western- or Northern-centric.

The sharpest criticism of the definition comes from the global East and global South where Western internationalisation often negates rather than enhances local agency.

Thirdly and finally, we should honour Altbach by elevating neocolonialism to the top of our concerns. This means also focusing on racism and White supremacy; and the remedies, which are decoloniality, global equity and reparative justice.

Coloniality and racism have been as important as nations, class and capital in shaping higher education. They are as present today as at any time in the past, though we are now more able to tackle them.

What we lack as yet in international higher education is a shared moral order and a consensus about the global common good, based in equality, of respect and epistemic diversity, that can unite us across the colonial divide between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’.

The essential starting point is the conscious rejection of Western superiority and coloniality.

Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, Director of the ESRC/RE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) and Joint Editor-in-Chief of the journal Higher Education. This is an edited version of the inaugural Philip G Altbach Lecture in June 2023 at Boston College Center for International Higher Education’s conference on international higher education.