Building an international learning society: is the UK listening to the East?

China’s investments in talent circulation and innovation hubs hold many lessons for the UK’s international education ambitions, says Catherine Montgomery 

March 26, 2019
Factory floor
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On 16 March the UK Department for Education and Department for International Trade published a policy paper giving further detail to its recently launched International Education Strategy.  The paper includes a joint foreword by the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, and the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox. This in itself positions the UK’s International Education Strategy as an economic and trade endeavour rather than a research, innovation and knowledge-building strategy.

The UK policy paper is detailed and presents a series of positive actions to promote international education, including the appointment of an “International Champion” and an awareness that tight visa policy and strict work permits after study are barriers and need to change. 

Despite its dominant economic discourse, the policy acknowledges that the principle of “mutual learning” is crucial to the development and continued success of the UK’s international education provision. 

The policy notes: “This ambition is not just economic: international collaboration brings with it a better understanding of the UK system by our overseas partners”. But how is the UK education sector learning from and about its international partners? And how is it listening to the most recent messages coming from abroad, particularly from the East?

China and East Asia’s approach to knowledge building over the past two decades has been to invest heavily but also, most importantly, to develop systems that learn from the educational approaches and developments of the US, the UK and other countries (not just in the West) and then fuse these approaches with their own. 

Investment in sophisticated talent circulation initiatives that prioritise sending academics and students out but then attracting them back has resulted in a growing number of the brightest overseas-educated Chinese graduates (known as sea turtles) and academics choosing to return home, bringing with them approaches to research and innovation that integrate Eastern and Western knowledge. 

In contrast to this, the UK policy still retains a strong sense that the UK is simply exporting our education products rather than collaborating on their development. And there is still an exploitative, economic and colonial feel to the policy. There is little sense that we are engaging with building joint knowledge systems that will draw on the expertise of both sides.

Details are sketchy in the UK international education policy around the nuances of particular countries, regions and cities and the different sorts of approaches that those distinctive regions are taking to knowledge building. An example of this is China’s Greater Bay Area initiative that aims to link southern cities, including Hong Kong, Macao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, into integrated research and innovation regions developing connected communities of technological, economic and business hubs. 

Four of the world’s top 100 universities and 16 of the world’s top 500 companies are located in the Bay Area, where universities partner seamlessly with industry, technology and business. The UK will need to understand these initiatives and be able to engage with them collaboratively, in the long term, not just in the immediate future.   

The new UK international education policy emphasises the importance of government-to-government understandings, which is a positive approach, but there will be a need for knowledge dialogues in disciplines beyond educational technology, which is mentioned in the policy paper. Collaborative learning in specific higher education disciplines as well as the development of interdisciplinarity in the UK will be crucial, while understanding what countries like China are doing to develop and invest in their disciplinary excellence will be important. 

China’s new Double First Class initiative is about economic investment in specific disciplines (rather than investment just in whole institutions) and plans to create world-class disciplines by the end of 2050. This long-term project runs on five-year cycles, supporting approximately 100 disciplines in chosen institutions. The UK’s approaches to investment in disciplinary knowledge may need to understand this approach to engage effectively with Chinese partners. 

Of course there are challenges in developing genuinely collaborative and dialogic approaches, including differences in levels and forms of academic freedom and levels of state control, particularly in higher education. But there must be a will to understand the other side and engage with a more collaborative approach to international education that the UK has not previously been used to. 

The UK still has a huge amount to offer in research and innovation terms. But we should seek the right structures and attitudes to make sure that we collaborate in knowledge building, learning from developments in the East in particular, rather than a predominantly economic approach to educational partnerships. 

Without this we will not build the international learning society that we will need to be to ensure that we are not left behind. 

Catherine Montgomery is professor of international higher education at the University of Bath and director of the new Centre for Research in Education in China and East Asia, which opens on 26 March.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Look East for knowledge building strategies

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