Globalisation and its discontents

Scholarship has long been international but the current vision of a ‘worldwide’ academy of rootless student-consumers and national economic competition is as contradictory as it is immoral, argues Thomas Docherty

January 17, 2013

What is the relation of the university to the polity, to “citizenship”? In the autumn of 2011, Kenneth Clark, who was then Secretary of State for Justice, described August’s rioters as a “feral underclass, cut off from everything in the mainstream but its materialism”. What he called their “criminality” was conditioned and explained by their fundamental divorcement from regular forms of participation in the polity or society. This led to their disengagement from “the values of mainstream society”.

Such disengagement, however, could by no means be construed as the exclusive prerogative of a group of supposedly “feral” rioters in August that year. After all, it is precisely what is routinely threatened by senior financiers and others in our allegedly “global jobs market” when they indicate that they are prepared to abandon any commitments to the nation if they are required to pay more UK tax or to forgo inflated bonuses-for-failures. Nor is this local to the UK or even simply a product of the post-2008 crisis. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch famously became a naturalised American, abandoning his Australian civic commitments in order to circumvent US laws that preclude foreign nationals from ownership of US TV stations.

The question of disengagement from, or engagement with, national culture or community - citizenship - is surely among the most pertinent when considering globalisation in the university sector. Globalisation is an “imperative”, said Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, when he opened a World Universities Network conference at Bristol in February last year. Looking through the “visions” (that Blakean replacement for “mission statements”) of many UK universities, one finds an almost routine claim that we are “producing/delivering” graduates who are going to be “global citizens”.

A current danger is that, through endlessly rehearsed but unargued assertion, the sector will find itself endorsing uncritically that which it should critique. Globalisation may establish normative - but problematic - economic practices, and we may find ourselves simply conforming to those norms and ignoring the attendant problems of globalisation and its occasional consequence of disengagement from community or the modern commons. Yet if the university is to maintain its intellectual credentials at all, it must be our responsibility to expose and confront conformity. Our place is to critique and to call conformities into question, not to endorse unexamined norms set by others.

Globalisation, of course, is not global. It is unevenly distributed; it is experienced differently in Adelaide and Accra; it feels different on the sofa of a World Bank office to on a Washington park bench. Moreover, globalisation is not new, even for the university: it has assumed variant forms for well over a thousand years. However, let’s start from the assertion that, in its current form, it is accelerating so rapidly that it must be embraced if we don’t want to be left behind the modernising rush.

The claim often made is that globalisation responds to student demand. Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, breathlessly points out that the rates of global student movement are increasing rapidly. “There has been an increase of 57 per cent in the last ten years,” he wrote in a recent blog; and that looks undeniably huge. But to look at this another way, what it means is that over 10 years, among the roughly 140 million students worldwide, another 750,000 of them participate as “global”, international students. In fact, the total percentage of such global students is about 2 per cent of the total worldwide.

Furthermore, this 2 per cent includes students who remain in their home country while being registered for courses “delivered” from another country, so the numbers actually moving across borders radically decreases. And the fast-approaching deeply globalised future? Current estimations are that worldwide student numbers will roughly double by about 2025. The cohort of students newly entering higher education to make up that figure come predominantly from social groups that are among the least likely to leave even their home town, much less their home nation, for their university education. In fact, the “global citizen” students actually crossing borders are decreasing significantly in percentage terms.

Universities have always had massive international presence and reach. At the turn of the 15th century, about the time of the Great Schism in the Christian Church, with two popes fighting for power and control over Europe and its institutions, scholars sometimes found that their papal allegiance gave them local difficulty. Prior to the Schism - which ended the Avignon Papacy - it was commonplace for scholars to travel for education to one of a small number of institutions. Thus, people from this island attended universities in Bologna, Salerno, Paris, Orléans and Avignon itself. Those institutions were certainly international (if not yet global) in reach.

England boasted two institutions at that time. When Scotland and England backed different sides in the Schism (Scots were for Avignon, the English for Rome), the movement of Scottish scholars to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge became fraught. Similar things were happening elsewhere across Europe. The consequence was the growth of domestic institutions within emergent nation-states, and the determination of those nation-states to use the universities essentially as institutions that would help to forge emergent national identities, cultures and committed affiliations. Universities, as seats of independent thinking, helped to forge the new nation-states, and national “citizens”, that would constitute modern Europe.

All this, of course, says nothing of what else was happening in the non-European world. In Fez, Morocco, the University of Al-Karaouine (founded around AD859 by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri) has some claim to be the first modern university. Alongside this, between about AD760 and AD820, Bayt al-Hikma (Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom”, essentially a library) was constructed. Its project was the gathering and translation of the great knowledge of the world as it was at that time, from all languages. This was, perhaps, the first exercise in what we might now think of as scholarly globalisation.

Yet the contemporary formulation of globalisation is very distinctive, and it is disturbingly marked by a fundamental self-contradiction. On one hand, it praises the idea of the post-national world in which we live; at the same time, globalisation is important if the UK is to “compete” against other nations worldwide. This latter view of globalisation is really an economic strategy of competition, designed to enhance one nation’s wealth over that of others, and is a matter for politicians and government. Should the university institution simply rehearse and endorse, uncritically, the pronouncements of our politicians - especially when those pronouncements lapse into self-contradiction? Our business is reasoning, and here is an example of false reasoning to be exposed.

When we fail to engage in constructive criticism of such arguments, we fall into that version of globalisation that involves us in self-contradiction and places economic competition at the heart of our system. This reduces the university to a brand name to be “traded” elsewhere, primarily to bring in tuition fees. In this way, the academy becomes explicitly politicised, essentially in favour of advancing a neoliberal economic agenda.

We become party to an exacerbation of the already troubling worldwide trend - the global trend - towards increased inequalities. A 2004 report by the International Labour Office in Geneva, A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All, found that the current processes of globalisation generate “unbalanced outcomes”. It agrees that “wealth is being generated” but adds immediately that “too many countries and people are not sharing in its benefits”, and concludes that the resulting “global imbalances” are “morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable”. Yet in 2010, the American Council on Education could issue a Blue Ribbon report on “Global Engagement” that reduced the issues around globalisation to two simple questions: a) the free international movement of staff, students and ideas; b) the question of US economic competitiveness and sustained dominance. The concerns expressed in 2004 are thus simply ignored.

The contradiction between national supremacy/economic competitiveness on one hand and “free” cross-border movement on the other is glaring. It can be explained in a simple formulation: globalisation requires the existence of national political boundaries in order to transgress those same boundaries economically.

Put this way, we can see who benefits from the very high stakes of the globalisation imperatives. The investor and philanthropist George Soros offers a “narrow definition” of post-1960 globalisation as “the free movement of capital and the increasing domination of national economies by global financial institutions and multinational corporations”. Soros is chilling as he explores the logic. He points out that the development of international institutions has not kept pace with the development of financial markets, with the result that political arrangements lag well behind the globalisation of economies. This provokes a crisis in democracy (which is perhaps all too apparent today). There is a visible crisis of legitimacy in our institutions. For Soros, the greatest threat to our democracy comes “from the formation of unholy alliances between government and business”. It is an arrangement of affairs that, as he points out, is not new: “It used to be called fascism…The outward appearances of the democratic process are observed, but the powers of the State are diverted to the benefit of private interests”.

Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel prizewinner, endorses these views. He and Soros (hardly regular bedfellows) agree on one fundamental point: we have not established the necessary international institutions to deal with the problems of globalisation. Instead, we have simply started to endorse the general tendency to accept it as a truistic imperative, as something with whose demands we must comply. But who is giving these orders? Where can we find the institutions adequate to our global predicaments?

The university is perfectly placed to be such an institution: a location of critique that can address inequalities and threats to democracy. Another name for this democracy is “widening participation”; such that our supposed “feral underclass” and our finance sectors start to find that they can share civic commitments, or that they can at least engage each other in democratic dialogue. Surely the university should be recalled to one of its central civilisational functions: to enable more people to engage in reasoned debate, in a polyglot House of Wisdom, democratically open. The contemporary version of university globalisation, however, does not seem to centre itself on widened participation in democratic politics, or even on the relation of the university to the civic polity.

Instead, some institutions are determinedly growing branded campuses abroad. Others strive to implant the voices of their academic community through the massive open online course, or Mooc. The New York University academic Andrew Ross has pointed out that, despite the growth in foreign campuses worldwide - a development that is fundamentally intended to deal with domestic economic shortfalls - the real globalisers are organisations such as the Laureate Education group. Laureate now has well in excess of 600,000 customers in more than 20 countries. Everything is 100 per cent online and everything, including teaching, is done on a pay-per-module basis. Instructors need no previous experience of online teaching but will get a four-week course that “qualifies” them; contractually, they must be prepared to be on call and ready to respond to customers who can be in any time zone worldwide, on a 24/7 basis. Is this the globalised university system that we want? Without students, without scholarly communities at all?

These models of globalisation require us to think of ourselves as commercial producers of human capital or human resources who will fit neatly into a world that is organised around the primacy of competition for private financial greed. Indeed, one major UK university - in a statement typical of many - describes its graduates as a “product”, to be “delivered” to the waiting world as recognisable “global citizens”. Such a position is entirely inadequate to our situations and it represents a fundamental betrayal of the sector, its students and citizenship.

Vice-chancellors seem to be obsessed with global visions. It might serve us better if, instead of having grand visions of this kind, they really just opened their eyes to see what is happening locally as a result of the too-easy acceptance of the globalisation agenda. Globalisation has many discontents: is it not more properly the task of the university to be the international institution that can analyse those discontents and that can offer people the means of engaging more democratically in our social being and welfare?

Global citizens? Just citizens might do for the moment, to replace the primacy of conformist consumers of an ill-assorted world order.

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