Gee up the global vision

Higher education is still far from borderless, argues Malcolm Gillies

February 10, 2011

"Globocrat" is my word of the week. Perhaps I haven't been mixing sufficiently with "Gees" (globally educated elites). The word came up in a glib article called "The global campus" in The Economist on 22 January. Globocrats, it quoted the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard University as saying, have "little need for national loyalty" and see national governments as relics. It reminded me of our globobanks, where this observation would appear to be true. But I'm not sure that too many universities are - or are even allowed to be - in as global a business as "The global campus" makes out.

We talk about global universities turning out global citizens according to global engagement plans. There are even global vice-chancellors (I'm supposedly one of them), who roam the world sans frontières. But many people seem to be unclear about what university globalisation actually is. Is it the flows of students across borders or is it the many problems that universities in different countries have in common? And how do these relate to the way the nation-transcending global elites behave? The idea of global higher education just passes by the many regulatory tripwires, not to mention roadblocks, at state and national levels. So, how global are our universities?

The recent debates flowing from Lord Browne of Madingley's review underscore the fact that higher education is still not an effectively globalised business. For weeks, the international or the global was hardly mentioned. The debate was about UK or European Union students, and sometimes just about English students. This is a world in which the UK students may gain fee and maintenance support, EU students just fee support and non-EU students will not gain either. So, these last are not even actors in the Browne drama, just lucrative extra potatoes in the national pot.

Fine, you might say; whose taxpayers are footing the bill (of an ineffective loan system) and whose tax system will be undertaking the recovery of the student debt? But underlying the debate is a clear fact. Higher education is still a national, or country-specific, or even state, jurisdictional responsibility. This is often constitutionally determined (in Canada it is a provincial responsibility, so it has no federal Department of Education). There appear to be few attempts, even within the EU, to change this. Hence, the harsh "citizen entitlement" or non-entitlement complexities in Lord Browne's new formulations for the future.

Put another way, higher education has a growing international component but it is not (yet) an effectively globalised field. It fails on the normal measures of globalisation: its transactions lack transparency, it is still conceptually national (or sub-national) in its jurisdiction, and it does not have a global "convertible currency", for instance, in credit transfer.

UK higher education is strongest in educational export (international student enrolment approaches 20 per cent, by one measure), and weak in educational import (our students abroad). Research seems somewhat more balanced. About 50 per cent of UK scientific research articles involve international collaboration, mostly with other European or North American partners. But globally, only about 3 per cent of post-secondary students study in a country other than their own, and about 20 per cent of article authorships cross any kind of national boundary.

What's more, amid these faltering proto-stages of higher educational globalisation there are growing forces of protectionism at play. In the UK, we see emerging immigration restrictions, including on the flow of international students. Even if degree-entry students are allowed visas to the UK, the projected clampdown at preparatory and foundation levels, as well as in post-study work, will significantly affect the attractiveness of study here. A much higher tuition-fee level for EU students from 2012 will also be a deterrent, as in most EU countries a high degree of state subsidy remains an inextricable part of the citizen compact. But we may see an increase in the reverse flow across the Channel, which would start to even up the educational ledger.

A recent book, How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - and the Stark Choices that Lie Ahead by Dambisa Moyo, recognises that protectionist forces are growing and will continue to grow while unemployment remains high. In fact, Europe and the US have always been highly protectionist, Moyo asserts, despite the rhetoric of free trade.

While "global" vice-chancellors might be ready for the next phases of internationalisation, for instance, in increasing student import - Rice University in Houston is aiming for a majority of its undergraduates to spend at least a semester abroad - or the building of really effective, profit-making, off-shore campuses, there is only occasional evidence that governing bodies are adapting. So frequently these remain locked in local structures of yesteryear, and subject to national dictates and guidelines. When there is an embrace of international expertise it is rarely with anything more than a token nod.

What would a truly global university look like? University College London has the strapline "London's Global University" and claims a global reach and vision. The two bolded indicators on its website are "34 per cent of students from outside the UK" and "21 Nobel prizewinners".

But Global University, an online Christian institution based in Missouri, must have the final word. Its vision is "to impact eternity by reaching the lost and training the found, everywhere!". With 234 offices in more than 150 countries, it seems well on the way to living up to its name.

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