Study steps into the melting pot

The Globalisation od Higher Education
December 10, 1999

This collection of conference papers throws much light on an important issue that - in the United Kingdom at least - goes almost unnoticed beneath the accumulated weight of other challenges. Lord Dearing barely found room to mention it in his report.

It is the question of whether the rapidly increasing flow of students around the modern world, added to the increasing role of distance learning,is beginning to turn the university from a national institution, intent on training local elites, into a globalised industry, bound up, as are other globalised industries, with "a knowledge society" that trades in symbolic goods, world-wide brands. In a quarter of a century, student mobility has increased by 300 per cent.

Nearly 2 million students in the top 50 host countries are from abroad. In the UK there are 200,000 of them, an increase of 1 per cent over a decade.

Receiving countries have been establishing scholarships (Chevening, Socrates, Erasmus, Leonardo) to encourage this development, and many universities in non-English-speaking countries now hold courses in English to attract more of this, often lucrative, academic traffic.

In Australia, universities are already showing signs that numbers have risen far enough. In the UK, overseas undergraduates represent more than 13 per cent of full-time students, and among graduates more than half of full-time students. Without their fees many UK universities would be struggling to maintain a reasonable standard. They represent an important part of the Pounds 7 billion a year of invisible earnings secured by British education.

Moreover, the UK manages to educate so large a sector of the elite of other countries that the nation is enabled to punch well above its weight in the international political world.

So intent are universities on making money and prestige from overseas students that they are neglecting to observe some of the academic and cultural implications of the globalising process, which also reaches those universities that are not caught up in the international student flow.

Globalisation is occurring simultaneously with the phenomenon of "massification", the aggregating of vastly enhanced numbers of home students in search of social mobility, economic advance and personal fulfillment. It is not clear whether these two phenomena are in mutual conflict, though Peter Scott argues forcefully that they are.

Moreover, globalisation means the exportation of political and social conflicts in ways that are inaccessible to tough immigration or asylum policies. It entails the implosion of time and space. Globalisation of the university speeds up the hybridisation of world cultures and the creation of a global-brand academic culture.

The modern university has grown up in a post-colonial world - half of all universities are post-1945 foundations, born in the era of the cold war, serving the purpose of establishing and reconstructing the culture of the nation-state.

Until the very recent past, the internationalisation of the academy was a post-colonial process dominated by the West. It was part of the process of training reliable indigenous elites in the secular ways of the developed world. The university acquired the role of capturing the intellectual exchanges of a world culture based upon the shared values of objective science.

The new environment of the university, shaped in part by the new knowledge technologies, is open to a new form of universalism, evocative for some of the archaic universalism of the medieval pregrinatio academica.But the reality lies elsewhere. For Scott, at least, the university of today is so caught up in the coils of localism, the inward-looking democratisation of knowledge, that it finds itself locked in a crisis of intellectual authority that compromises its international standing. Massification and globalisation are rival processes, not continuities.

The university, rooted in local traditional space, committed to expansion within defined geographical locations, could find itself soon overtaken by "more fleet-footed, globally based" institutions, possibly virtual ones, that owe more to the information product empires than to the traditional academy.

Even if global universities do emerge, they are unlikely to be based upon our traditional organisations, which are probably un-able to concentrate their resources and investment to compete with the Microsofts and News Internationals of the information world.

Most universities, says Scott, lack the product, the width and the critical mass, unless some form of networked chain of universities can find its way through.

Here are several very illuminating chapters and some gloomy conclusions.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, University of Oxford.

The Globalisation od Higher Education

Editor - Peter Scott
ISBN - 0 335 20244 6 and 20245 4
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £65.00 and £22.50
Pages - 134

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