Global Inequalities and Higher Education: Whose Interests Are We Serving?

November 11, 2010

As a glance at any issue of this magazine shows, higher education is increasingly a global phenomenon. But globalisation poses particular challenges. Put crudely, is higher education to be a means of enabling society to harness the benefits of global provision, by helping us to understand it better and to minimise the detriments, or is it to be merely a site for replicating these detriments, as uncritical readers of Ben Wildavsky's The Great Brain Race (reviewed in these pages on 3 June 2010) may assume? This is the question considered by Global Inequalities and Higher Education: Whose Interests Are We Serving?

In the introduction, the editors write of a "tetradilemma" of how worldwide aspirations for economic growth, equity, democracy and sustainability can be reconciled. They argue that the central issue is equity, and emphasise the importance of the Washington Consensus of economic policy prescriptions. This has focused on trade liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation and tax austerity, contributing both to the expansion of higher education in many countries but also to widening inequalities both within and between higher education systems. It is arguable that such growing inequalities have contributed to the economic crisis.

These inequalities are mapped in the first three chapters. Allan Luke considers that our conceptual tools for understanding internationalisation are inadequate, linked as they are to an "institutionalised Eurocentric myopics", and that this will cost the West dear as institutions in Asia and Latin America position themselves to reclaim these markets.

Rajani Naidoo extends the discussion to the impact of globalisation on lower-income countries, expressing concern that, as currently practised, internationalisation will hinder development both directly, by increasing disparities with wealthier ones, and indirectly, by foisting on them a market model that may not be appropriate at this stage of their development.

Elaine Unterhalter distinguishes three different pedagogies - of consequence, construction and connection - that can contribute to equity in global relations.

The next four chapters show how these inequalities work in practice. Saleem Badat adds to the already copious scholarly critiques of international institutional rankings, arguing that universities in the South need to find alternative instruments that genuinely serve relevant educational and social purposes.

Vincent Carpentier distinguishes internationalisation (increasing exchanges or links between nations) from globalisation (practices adopted across nation states). He uses Nikolai Kondratiev's long economic cycles to locate globalisation as a particular form of internationalisation. Analysing data about postgraduate Pakistani students in Britain, Diana Leonard and Maryan Rab argue that, with their commitment to access and equity, universities here should take a more rounded and proactive approach to their international students instead of seeing them mainly as an income source. On the basis of Mexican experience, Carlos Barron-Pastor discusses appropriate initiatives for realising the higher education aspirations of indigenous communities in developing countries.

The book's final section proposes ways of creating greater equality in and through higher education at the global level. Reporting on a Higher Education Academy-financed project, Melanie Walker advocates the incorporation of Amartya Sen's "capability" approach - the notion that people are able through education to develop a reasoned understanding of their own value through a university education that is "the practice of freedom" - into university pedagogies.

Looking at the teaching of sociology in six university departments, Andrea Abbas and Monica McLean consider how quality assurance could promote equalities by taking more seriously assessments of different forms of knowledge, in particular working-class students' connections between the study of society and their own lives.

Douglas Brown and Alun Morgan describe various ways in which development education, sustainable development and global citizenship are having an impact in UK higher education.

Finally, Harry Brighouse proposes that since higher education nearly everywhere is - and especially in international programmes - a reinforcement of existing inequalities, academics should adopt an ethical stance to their work that involves them in shaping the values and future direction of their students. The liberal conception of higher education as the intellectual and moral development of the individual should provide the basis for this practice.

The book's main limitation is that much of the material in it comes from one country, Britain. However, unlike so much being written about international higher education, it is based on genuine scholarship rather than high-class journalism. Those who want a reasoned perspective on this subject, rather than cheerleading for international capitalism, do not have far to seek.

Global Inequalities and Higher Education: Whose Interests Are We Serving?

Edited by Elaine Unterhalter and Vincent Carpentier. Palgrave Macmillan, 344pp, £22.99. ISBN 9780230223516. Published 16 June 2010

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