The Global Univerity Projects: What Have We Learned

One of the persistent dream of the flat world thinkers is the making of a great global university. In fact, it is not just an ambition, but it is an essential part of the flat world thinking, for globalisation to succeed, the universality of a certain kind of aspiration, arguably a consumer aspiration, must be established first. Geography may have proved unassailable to the military experts and business planners, but educators, it was hoped, would become the flat world pioneers.

But, so far, it has failed to happen. The blame was squarely heaped on the various regulatory agencies that intend to maintain their own fiefdoms. However, the big reason really is that geography still matters. The global university may one day bring the flat world, but so far, the starting point of the university makers was the flat world, which is indeed a Western rhetoric than a global reality. The globalisation we have so far achieved is the globalisation of money, but not of people. Or, put in another way, we may have achieved globalisation of desperation, that people start feeling bad about themselves whatever they are, but are nowhere near the globalisation of aspiration. And, in this setting, global university projects have some huge barriers to scale.

I am conscious that the argument that we haven't achieved globalisation of aspiration may not sit well with those who sees the 'Chinese Dream' or 'Indian Dream' essentially as copies of the 'American Dream'. But, as I argue, the 'Indian Dream' (if it is possible to conceive any such thing, rather than the different 'Gujrati Dream', 'Tamil Dream' or 'Bengali Dream') may include the Aging Parents and all the extended family, and the 'Chinese Dream' may be to be accepted as valued member of the community, quite distinct from the American dream of a city life, nuclear family, a job and a car. And, indeed, the 'American Dream' may already be no more, as middle class life there vanishes, and the 'American Dream' thing is like a trademark without its contents. 

Given this, Global University projects have a difficult starting point. Their assumption that everyone wants a similar education is fundamentally mistaken. Oftentimes, the silicon valley funded Change The World start-ups braved the area, and proved, instead of the solution, the problem: That global universities aren't feasible. In most cases, they have become finance organisations, instead of universities more like an education bank, such as Laureate, which bankrolls a global education empire based on its credit ratings at home and the value of the property portfolio abroad. The others have proved the case of what I shall call 'Global Desperation': The wanting of a fantastical rootlessness of a global paradise (defined by, using the slightly dated and politically incorrect reference points, with an American salary, a British home, a Chinese cook and a Japanese wife) which, in reality, may indeed appear as the global hell (using similarly indulgent parameters, with a Chinese salary, a Japanese home, a British cook and an American wife).

I ponder a lot about these limitations, as my work covered the full arc from enthusiasm about universality of aspirations to a realisation about the parochial nature of all institutions. The way I see it is that while the idealistic form of the university is constructed around internationalist ethic, that is only the rhetorical part of the project, superficial and insincere; the true driver behind global university projects is the expansionism of certain ideas and values of domination, a dynamic of power aimed at limiting the possibilities of target territories rather than unleashing them. In short, it is the creation of global desperation, rather than enabling the possibilities of people. In such form, the projects of global universities are essentially opposed to its own rhetoric, and based on the already failed faith in being able to fool all the people all the time.

The failure of most current projects to get traction is therefore good news: It should force a rethink of the ideas involved. That money does not necessarily ensure a flat world comes only when the money starts running out: Other issues, such as the nature of commitments, engagements with local values and ideas, the aspirations and motives of students, emerge in sharp relief only when the disco lights of global talk dimmed. I see many projects, as I mentioned earlier, which only prove the problem but are unable to provide a solution: The only solution they ended up providing is to settle for a multi-local form, usually around the clusters they are most comfortable, proclaiming the globality of their parochiality. I shall argue that these failures stem from inside, that while imagining global universities the founders usually rely on existing process based value chain forms, and fail to change their paradigm of university making into user network thinking (see my post on Universities as User Networks) and make a real humanitarian commitment. And, that indeed is my final argument, that the idea of global is essentially based on humanism, faith in some common human traits, not commonality of our race, religion, linguistic preference or consumption habits, but our values, beliefs, ideas of goodness and commitment to each other. The value-neutral global university, as it exists today, only exists as a clearing house of global power, as enticing a prospect but as temporal as its sponsor really is.



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