Global? Not remotely

Universities in the US and the UK want to dominate, not collaborate with, other countries, argues Andy Kirkpatrick

September 10, 2009

Given that the recent report on "Building a Global Society" was written by leading UK and US vice-chancellors, I was no doubt naive to believe that it would actually be about building a global civil society.

Last month's report from Gordon Brown's UK-US study group, Higher Education and Collaboration in a Global Context, is not about this at all. It is riddled with hypocrisy and hubris.

The authors are hypocritical as they claim that they wish to extend the public good of higher education and to "foster the development of a global civil society that will bind universities and countries together through common values and principles". The authors' real aim seems to be to ensure that UK-US collaboration will allow them "to continue to assert their primacy in the realm of higher education". Far from "binding universities and countries together", other countries and universities are viewed as competitors. Those named include China, India and, by association, South Korea.

The report is very much an "us" versus "them" document, and it often reads like a cross between a neocon manifesto and a missionary manual. The authors are clearly worried that Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, might be right when he says that the "West is losing its monopoly on the 'globalisation process'". In a turn of phrase of which Dick Cheney would be proud, the authors are desperate to ensure that "our group's universities will plant firmly the ideals of liberty and democracy".

The hypocrisy of the report shows through elsewhere, as the aura of extending the public good cloaks a major aim, which is to make money for UK and US universities out of this public good. Readers are reminded that international students contribute £5.5 billion a year to the UK economy.

Hubris is evident throughout the report. UK and US higher education is simply described as being "excellent". The UK-US model is assumed to be the one that everyone needs. This is colonialism in an academic gown.

The main vehicle by which the UK and US "will continue to assert primacy" is the proposed Atlantic Trust. Not surprisingly, this looks self-serving. The Atlantic Scholarship scheme recalls "aid" programmes of the worst kind, whereby "we" select "their" brightest and best, train them in our image and hope that they decide to stay. The Atlantic Researchers scheme requires each research team to include at least one UK and one US partner, and at least one partner from a third country. The research partnerships will thus be dominated by UK- and US-based researchers, to their advantage.

Despite the fine words that "future UK-US HE collaboration must not foster the anglophone and culturally Anglo-centred bubble that our primacy first created", the report is aimed at strengthening precisely this. Even though the authors realise that "they" have learnt English and know our ways, and acknowledge that "we" don't know enough about them or their languages, the focus remains on providing English-language training to "them", rather than on providing language and cultural training to "us". The Atlantic Scholarships will fund UK and US students to spend four years divided between the UK and US, although the students will need to spend up to a year in another country. International students will spend four years divided between the UK and the US. This is where the Anglocentrism of the report is most obvious. Rather, it is the UK and US students who need to spend four years in "foreign" countries.

This is not a report about the internationalisation of higher education. It is a report about strengthening UK and US dominance in the face of international competition. Genuinely international higher education will not privilege Anglo-American institutions and culture. Partnerships must be partnerships of equals. A truly global civil society can be constructed only through a commitment to studying the ways of knowing, the scientific discoveries, and the religions and philosophies of the world's great civilisations and cultures, and through acknowledging and understanding their fundamental importance for any global civil society.

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