The notion that universities operate as a public good is “unrealistic” and dishonest, according to a higher education consultant who claimed that the sector should not be so arrogant to “bestow” its vision on the world.
Daniel Guhr, managing director of US-based Illuminate Consulting Group, said that higher education exists “in a world of the 1 per cent”, in terms of the proportion of people across the world who study at universities.
“We often operate in a world where international education is [seen as] for the common good and the advancement of humanity and everyone should volunteer and the government should pay for everything,” he said.
“That’s just completely unrealistic and often not actually very honest because it is a massive business right now, and maybe it should be understood as such.”
Dr Guhr continued: “We have always assumed that what we’re doing is global and honourable. And in many ways it is. But it is for a tiny fraction of society.”
He added that internationalisation has often been at a “significant disconnect” with local communities.
“A very sizeable number of international students are now more affluent than the average German or Canadian or middle-class American. There is still a fundamental misbelief that has been carried over that international students are all smart and all poor. We live in a different time now,” he said during a panel debate on the return of the nation state at the annual conference of the European Association for International Education on 14 September.
“If you think about any university city, housing has become a huge issue... Who are buying town houses and apartments? International students,” he continued.
Dr Guhr said that cities and businesses “follow the money”, which means that they “exclude more and more segments in domestic populations”.
He warned delegates that his comments might make universities feel “uncomfortable” but said that any wounding remarks were “self-inflicted by higher education”.
Dr Guhr also rejected the notion that, to conquer the disconnect between universities' global ambitions and local responsibilities, international education should be made available to everyone.
“That is just wrong. The vast majority of people don’t care about international experiences. That’s not what they want, that’s not what they need. So why should we assume that we’re so important that we’re going to bestow this vision on absolutely everybody?” he said.
However, during a separate session earlier in the day on the topic of universities and cities, James Ransom, policy researcher at Universities UK, argued that choosing “one or the other” when it came to institutions’ local development and internationalisation, was a “false trade-off”.
“You can be internationally engaged, internationally committed, while still doing excellent work on the doorstep of the university,” he said.