The Times Higher Education League Tables are out, the usual self-congratulatory columns have duly appeared alongside a few long faces and the Conference Season have began in all earnestness. We just ran one ourselves, which was about Indian Higher Ed but the conversation primarily centered around how Brand Britain could help lift standards. Another is due next week - under the title 'Exporting Excellence'. The moment of Transnational Education has clearly arrived - and by common belief, UK Education institutions, primarily due to their 'quality', are expected to take the lead. It is timely therefore to ask how pertinent is this expectation, and whether UK Higher Education institutions will really be able to take advantage of the 'globalisation of education'.
The strengths should be obvious: The UK institutions dominate the league tables after the US ones. Some of the world's best known universities are in the UK. The UK researchers get a disproportionately large amount of citations (14%) compared to the overall research spending in global terms (less than 5%). Despite the government's rhetoric and fumbles around the immigration policy, UK remains the second most popular destination for mobile students. UK Higher Education, if considered an export industry, is the country's fifth or sixth largest foreign currency earner. With concerted efforts spanning many decades, the UK Higher Education and its associated 'industries' have a truly global reach, both in terms of brand and delivery prowess, and recognition among the employers.
But, there is a reason for my discordant note: That all this may actually come to pass. I heard the term 'Lazy Internationalisation' first time from Nigel Healy, the current Pro Vice Chancellor at Nottingham Trent University's Business School: I believe this represents the attitude of UK institutions to transnational education quite succinctly. This 'Brand UK' thing is like a family heirloom, being mortgaged by the current generation of universities who wanted to live a lifetime of reflected glory. All the magisterial talk about global domination are closely borrowed from the rhetoric of the empire, and one could argue, I argue, most British universities are mostly insular institutions disconnected from the realities of international education.
This is not just about the current configuration of the league tables, where, despite the pre-eminence of the UK institutions, the biggest story may be the rise of the rest - the Chinese, the South Korean and eventually other Asian institutions (and some Indian business schools, in business school league tables). This is not about the weakness of the school system in the UK, where excellence is often restricted at a tiny top, leaving most of the expanding university system exposed to indifferent students. While I believe that the changes in the government funding and the overall muddle in education funding will affect the standing of the British universities eventually, we may not need to worry about it yet (perhaps). I think there is a far more urgent problem - that of lack of understanding of the changing nature of Higher Education - and common sense though it may be, it may turn out to be the most difficult to tackle.
To illustrate what I mean, let me talk about this talk about 'quality' that UK institutions often talk about. Over last half decade or so, I have had many discussions about what is meant by 'quality' (because, for me, it was essentially a variable thing) with many students as well as providers. My understanding of 'quality' as it is seen by the British Higher Education institutions is roughly this: A lesson taught in English with an Anglo-Saxon person (usually overpaid for being Anglo-Saxon) delivering the same. The fact that I am not Anglo-Saxon myself may make it sound like a complaint, but it is not: I am just trying to make a statement, as neutral as possible, what quality has come to mean. Indeed, there is absolutely wrong with this conception of quality because generations of Asian and African students perceived this to be 'quality' and paid for it, understandably because of the colonial hangovers that these societies have had. The problem is that the UK institutions have got so used to this conception of quality that they have started substituting this imperial notion for their idea of 'quality'.
This is where the insularity starts. When the global markets started changing in the last two decades, the conception of quality has started changing too: But, being in denial, and somewhat misled by the quick rise of English language in quantitative terms - more people are learning English than ever - the British HE has lived in denial for far too long that the conception of quality that has served them so well might actually be obsolete. All challenges to their self-centric view of the world, among which I shall count the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East, has been dismissed as exceptional, handiwork of a few evil people rather than any broad social trend. But this would be undermining the true nature of global transformation that is all around us: More than the wars in Middle East and financial meltdown, the broader global trends such as the breaking of the middle class myth, the rise of illiberal democracies and the end of expansionary finance, define what happens in Higher Education. These trends, more obvious in the streets of Mumbai or Shanghai than the timeless environs of rural Yorkshire, have now overtaken the post-colonial dream and therefore, post-colonial conception of quality and merit that is steeped inside the internationalisation thinking of British HE.
The turning of tide in global finance, and attendant stagnation of middle class prosperity, may not spell the end of internationalisation of education, or a shift of power to the East, but this will most certainly challenge the current notions of Higher Education: A training for good life, which is defined in the context of a 'professional society', defined in the image of transformation of industrial societies. However, the gradual progression from industrial capacity building to service economies may not happen for newly industrial countries, as is commonly expected: Rather, they have to come to acknowledge the different developmental context that their trajectories may shape out, shaped, not just by secular and independent working of economic rationale, but also by the power politics of globalisation, the cultural context of post-colonialism and the environment of climatic austerity. As this awareness emerges, and this is indeed emerging in variable rates in different societies, the Higher Education must then be shaped accordingly. It must be able to accommodate the quickly changing conception of good life, rather than just supplanting the illusions of Western middle class living globally: The idea of the white professor teaching in English as the pinnacle of intellectualism will also be replaced with a new engagement with local contexts and rediscovery of culture.
I would argue that the British universities are quite unprepared for this new internationalisation (we can follow convention and call this 'internationalisation 2.0'). The whole talk surrounding 'Brand UK', the obsession with the colonial past and overwhelming influence of English language, which is an advantage but a baggage in turn, expose the poverty of their engagement with this changing context of Higher Education. The changing dynamic of Times Higher rankings (and indeed, other emergent rankings globally) should be less of an occasion for self-celebration and more an opportunity to explore and understand the nature of Higher Ed: It is not the top end of the Global 200, but the bottom of the 400 list where the gazes should rightfully fall. The rhetoric of power and prestige should at least be balanced with the ideas of possibility and preparation, the resplendent tradition could be extended only with effort to the changing context of aspiration among austerity. It is here the new global futures will be shaped: The British academe should now learn to be less of the chambermaid of the power and prestige and master the midwifery to bring about the new possibilities.
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