When nationalist ideologies meet internationalisation of HE

Higher education institutions have been striving to evolve as part of the internationalisation process that is taking place in the higher education landscape across the world. Not wanting to be left behind in the globalised era, Asian higher education institutions have not been able to resist the appeal of the perceived benefits of being internationalised.

In the midst of these transformations, many governments in Asia have introduced national policies to reassert their political, cultural and educational ideologies in various ways.

Fearing that the forces of globalisation might mean that their citizens behave in less nationalistic ways, because they see themselves as global citizens and therefore adopt values that are outside of their culture, governments have felt that it is necessary to ensure that they remain patriotic and loyal towards the state.

This pursuit of nationalism has affected students in higher education institutions. Now students are required to complete several compulsory courses and training aimed at promoting political nationalism in tandem with their university programme.

China and Vietnam are socialist countries with different patterns of leadership and political agendas. Yet, both states have embedded their own respective political and nationalistic ideals within the curricula delivered through higher education institutions.

Case one: China

A look at the history of modern China provides insights into why ideological and political education are considered essential in the Chinese higher education system.

After the Opium War in 1840, China was involved in numerous foreign invasions and civil wars for decades that left the nation largely divided and demoralised. It urgently needed to strengthen social cohesion. This line of argument was used by the Communist government to reform the education system with ideologies centred on the cultivation of socialist values and beliefs.

In 2012, the Communist Party of China (CPC), drawing on past ideological and political education, proposed the Core Socialist Values that became the basis for their educational ideologies, values and beliefs. These values include prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendliness.

In 2017, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was formally included in the Constitution of the CPC. In 2022, the Ministry of Education of China began to integrate President Xi Jinping’s political ideology into its national curriculum from primary school up to university.

Students across China are introduced to these socialist ideologies and values during their first or second year of higher education through completing a number of compulsory courses such as ‘Ideology, Morality and Rule of Law’, ‘Outline of Modern and Contemporary History of China’, ‘The Principles of Marxism’, ‘Introduction of Mao Zedong Thought and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, ‘Current Situation and Policies’, ‘Military Theory and Practice’ and ‘Psychological Quality Education of College Students’.

Case two: Vietnam

After the reunification between the Socialist North and the Democratic South in 1975, modern Vietnam struggled to reinvent its national identity, but the concept of nationalism for the purposes of independence from colonising powers slowly became irrelevant after the country successfully regained peace and unity.

As the country turned its attention towards the economic development and global integration, economic reforms of Doi Moi in the 1980s and its embedded socialist ideologies have also shaped the higher education system in Vietnam, which was developed based on the Soviet model.

Political ideologies and nationalism based on socialist principles were interwoven throughout the higher education curriculum. Students across all academic programmes are required to complete compulsory subjects, including the ‘Fundamental Principles of Marxism-Leninism’ and the ‘Revolutionary Line of the Communist Party of Vietnam’.

Nationalist education is also embedded in other compulsory subjects for students across all academic programmes at university, like National Defence Education.

In the early 2000s, the introduction of two subjects ‘Ho Chi Minh Ideology’ and ‘Fundamentals of Vietnamese Culture’ reflected a shift towards nationalist-oriented education in the higher education system. These subjects focus on dominant discourses surrounding the Communist Party and the government with the purpose of “building, preserving and promoting the values of an advanced Vietnamese culture imbued with national identity”.

Preserving a legacy beneath the façade

Political leaders often become symbols of nationalism as the state seeks to create what the political scientist Benedict Anderson describes as an “imagined political community” across the nation. Reminding citizens of the sacrifices endured by these leaders becomes a necessity in order to justify the continuity and historical legitimacy of the party to remain in power.

More often than not, the curriculum in higher education institutions serves as a medium for the state to remind its youth of their nation’s history and the legacy of its founding fathers in shaping and building the national success which its people enjoy today.

A quick glance at the titles of some compulsory courses mentioned above clearly shows that prominent figures of the ruling government are venerated in the higher education curriculum. In the case of China it is Mao Zedong, and in Vietnam it is Ho Chi Minh.

Through the compulsory courses introduced in Chinese higher education institutions, the Chinese government intends its young people to fully understand the history of China, the reasons why Marxism and a socialist path emerged in China and how Chinese people can achieve their goals.

The economic success of China becoming the world’s second economic power and the improvement of average Chinese people’s lives today serves as further means of convincing young people that socialist ideologies have led China to become a prosperous country.

Likewise in Vietnam, the aim of introducing ‘Ho Chi Minh Ideology’ was to ensure students gain a deeper appreciation of how Vietnam has developed since its colonial period through the contributions of Ho Chi Minh. By linking the development of Vietnam’s modern history to the life of Ho Chi Minh and his ideological values, the Communist Party of Vietnam aims to continue to legitimise its mandate to remain in power.

Universities caught in the middle

Higher education institutions in Asia today are faced with a myriad of challenges as they seek to fulfil their primary role of educating society and engaging in research for knowledge production.

On the one hand, universities are actively competing among themselves to mark their presence in the region and globally by climbing up the global university rankings. This entails being engaged in various internationalisation strategies, suc as recruiting international academic staff and students, seeking opportunities for international research collaborations and running academic programmes that are imported from abroad.

On the other hand, these universities are also bound by state laws to conduct the aforementioned nationalist-oriented courses that students are required to complete. This appears to be counterproductive as adhering to a national agenda clashes with the institution’s internationalisation efforts, which encourage the entire academic community to partake in global citizenship rather than prioritising one’s own nation.

What remains to be followed up on is how this overlapping layer of nationalist-oriented education and the internationalisation of higher education operate in practice as viewed through the experiences of teachers and students, especially international students enrolled in Asian higher education programmes that require them to learn about their host country and be exposed to nationalist content in the curriculum.

Another consideration that is open for discussion is whether there are parallel observations in other Asian countries with different political ideologies, for example, democratic countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia. Such a comparison promises to be revealing in terms of any differences that emerge, but it may also point to some universal aspect of the relationship between higher education and contemporary political nationalism.

Meng Liu holds a PhD in translation studies. Currently, he is an associate professor in the College of International Studies at Yangzhou University in China. Ngô Thi Dim Hang is teaching as a registered teacher in South Australia and doing research as an affiliated lecturer with the School of Interdisciplinary Sciences at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. Her research interests include folklore studies, religion studies, cultural anthropology and Vietnamese as an additional language and heritage language. Mohammod Moninoor Roshid is a professor of English language education in the Institute of Education and Research (IER) at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. He also is working as a visiting academic at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Brendan Ch’ng recently completed his PhD in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya in Malaysia. This article is part of a series, “Asian Higher Education Changes: Perspectives from within” initiated by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (ICE@UBD).