Seize the global day

We live in a connected global environment, Graeme Harper says, so why does the sector act like it's 1911, not 2011?

September 15, 2011

The meaning of "global" has changed. Forty years ago it was valid to talk about the global in terms of nations slowly rising and falling on the world stage, the power of huge corporations to ignore national borders and the relative strength of cultures, histories and languages in encapsulating one or another national or regional perspective. Today, if this is where you stop talking about the global, you miss some of its most pervasive elements.

The global has changed, not because national or corporate power has abandoned it, or because local or regional resistance to it is no longer possible, but because new technologies have greatly influenced it and contributed to making it new and distinctive. These technologies have fuelled fresh perspectives and changes in human action. This is not a rupture; rather, it is evolution (albeit incredibly rapid in recent times). Today the global is so often unbounded, frequently personalised, largely domesticated, portable and available 24 hours a day.

In higher education, you would think this would often determine our activities and institutions' formal policies regarding teaching and research. Given that the sector is meant to be the site of educated leadership, that would make perfect, appropriate sense. However, in so many instances this turns out not to be the case. What we find instead are outmoded, outdated, inward-looking policies that suggest not a higher purpose to what we are doing, but rather a determination to support systems of nation-state education and exchange that do not match the world we are living in and that deny the interconnected daily exchanges with which most of us are now so familiar.

Such a statement is, of course, a generalisation: undeniably there are instances of higher education institutions embracing the 21st-century global. But why then do we continue to deliver so much university education as if much of the world were not linkable 24/7 by contemporary technology? Why have we built entire campuses in other parts of the world to export what are largely national attitudes to higher education? Is this purely market opportunism, or do the imperialist overtones hide something more altruistic, more humanly valuable? Regardless, is any of this the best we can do to lead the world in delivering the most advanced forms of education?

High moral ground is often unstable, so I will not stand on it here. I am as guilty as the next academic of encouraging peers to fly across the world to events they could easily access by other means. Connecting people, creating teaching partnerships and pursuing cutting-edge research involve people meeting face to face - the local, regional and national manifest in individuals sharing the same physical space: to suggest otherwise would be to deny the nature of humankind. Nevertheless, something is lacking in our institutional methods of development, something decidedly out of pace with the world we have helped to create.

The 21st-century global is not all about technological change, nor is the failure of higher education to work with it. Surveying the situation, the underlying assumption has to be that we have in place such a labyrinthine system of financial, political and institutional self-preservation that in order to embrace the possibilities of the new global, we will have to adjust some extremely entrenched systems. Many of these bear the marks of immutable importance and deal in the rhetoric of institutional and national tradability - and not just in terms of academe. Higher education never looks more like an industry than when we consider institutional reactions to globalisation, and nations never look more like nations than when they offer up their "highest" form of education.

Change in these contexts could take time. Not every institution will act, even if they recognise they have to, because they cannot afford to do so. The real concern, however, is that by the time some institutions do act, the higher purpose that university education must embrace will already have passed on to others. In that scenario, these institutions will be adjusting their practices merely to survive.

Professionally and personally, many of us in higher education realise that such a belated approach to leadership simply is not good enough.

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