Imperial echoes

'Internationalisation' is the trend du jour for universities, but they would do well to consider its earlier manifestation during the British Empire's long 19th century. As Tamson Pietsch explains, history has much to tell us about the possibilities - and pitfalls - of the phenomenon today

March 8, 2012

Across the world, higher education is increasingly characterised by talk of "internationalisation". Taking a number of forms - from charging foreign students full-cost fees to establishing overseas campuses and offering offshore degrees - internationalisation is big business. These activities offer cash-strapped universities a way to increase their income while also advertising themselves as institutions that equip students to work in the global knowledge economy.


But to a historian of the British Empire, much of the current talk about internationalisation sounds strangely familiar. At least four of its contemporary variants can be traced back to the 19th century, when the expanding routes of British trade and empire were creating new kinds of global connections and different forms of educational entanglement. These earlier versions of university internationalisation deserve attention, for they have much to tell us about the possibilities - and the perils - of the phenomenon in the 21st century.

One of the first forms of 19th-century academic internationalisation was the establishment by Britain of universities in India. Following the publication of Thomas Babington Macaulay's Minute on Indian Education in 1835, the creation of an anglicised Indian elite - or in Macaulay's infamous words, "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect" - became the official policy of the British in India.

To effect this, a university system was established along the lines of that operating at the time at the University of London. From 1857, all existing private-, missionary- and government-run education institutions were to teach students who would sit examinations set by the mostly British professors who ran three new secular institutions: the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (and from 1882 and 1887 the universities of the Punjab and Allahabad, respectively).

By promoting Western learning in this way, the British had two aims. First, they wanted to fashion loyal Indian subjects who might serve the Raj; sanctioning ways of knowing was a means of acquiring dominion over both land and people. Second, they sought to do so at minimum expense: this examining model outsourced the provision of teaching to India's diverse array of existing (and often privately run) educational establishments while simultaneously asserting control over them.

However, by the end of the 19th century the shortcomings of this model had become clear. The new Indian universities had been imposed on communities already rich in knowledge systems and educational institutions. Commentators both in Britain and on the subcontinent pointed to the neglect of local culture, languages and religion. They lamented the rote learning encouraged by the centrality of exams and condemned as substandard the institutions that grew up to prepare students for them, largely through cramming.

Although there were reforms in the first half of the 20th century, university administrator and educational historian Eric Ashby felt that this past lay heavy upon the Indian universities. As he wrote in 1961: "To exclude ... for half a century the whole of oriental learning and religion and to purvey to Hindus and Moslems a history and philosophy whose roots lie exclusively in the Mediterranean and in Christianity; to communicate the examinable skeleton of European civilisation without ensuring that the values and standards which give flesh to these bones are communicated too; to set up the external paraphernalia of a university without the warmth and fellowship of academic society: these are the handicaps against which Indian universities are still struggling."

Although the second type of 19th-century university internationalisation operated on similar principles, it fared somewhat better. This was the University of London's external examination system, which still exists today as the University of London International Programmes. Established in 1836, the university had originally awarded degrees by examination to students who had been taught in one of a number of affiliated colleges in the city. However, in 1858, the requirement that students attend classes at one of these institutions was abolished and, except in medicine, degrees began to be granted on the basis of successful exam performance alone. This enabled students from across the globe to access London degrees. The first of these overseas exams took place in Mauritius in 1865. By 1900, London exams were also being held in Gibraltar, Jamaica, Trinidad, Ceylon, Sierra Leone, Hong Kong, British Guiana, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Australia and the Windward Isles. As a 1906 promotional pamphlet stated, London's external system made it possible "for a Colonial student to obtain some of the degrees of the University by examinations conducted entirely in his own Colony".

This system stimulated the development of teaching colleges that offered preparation to students planning to sit the London exams. Several were established in Britain, in places such as Nottingham, Southampton and Leicester, where they would later form the nucleus of the second wave of civic universities. But in the 1920s, "university colleges" were also founded across the Empire. They included Ceylon University College (established 1920), the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore (1921), Makerere University College in Uganda (1922), Achimota College on the Gold Coast (1924) and Raffles College in Singapore (1928).

Others were developed after the Second World War. The colleges were staffed by a combination of British-born and local teachers (most of whom had themselves taken London degrees), but their curricula remained externally controlled by the examiners in London. In fact, students who graduated from the external programme took degrees that were indistinguishable from those of their contemporaries in Bloomsbury, Southampton and the North of England. Similar arrangements were made between institutions in other parts of the Empire. Students at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone had been able to take degrees from Durham University since 1876; from 1878, students from Rangoon College had taken degrees from Calcutta; and from 1881, students from Dundee had sat University of St Andrews exams.

Similar to the offshore offerings of UK universities today, London's external system and the colleges that supported it brought higher education within the reach of colonial subjects for whom it would otherwise have been inaccessible, while at the same time providing a valuable revenue stream for the university. However, it also created a problem.

In 19, the governor of Ceylon telegrammed the Colonial Office about the qualifications of an Indian applicant called J.C. De, whom Ceylon University College wished to appoint as a lecturer in history. The governor was confused. Although De claimed that he had a London bachelor's degree (1921) and a master's (1923), his name did not appear in the published honours lists. Did he have official degrees or not? In the end, it was established that De had not in fact obtained his London degree in London, but as an external student. What this signalled might be judged by his failure to be appointed to the post. For the governor at least, an external degree was not considered to be on a par with one taken in England. As with the accreditation programmes and overseas degrees offered by UK universities in the 21st century, although the external degree was supposedly identical to one taken in Britain, its value was not.

The prestige attached to studying in Britain helped to contribute to a third kind of 19th-century university internationalisation: the development of the overseas student market. Mandatory for all positions in the Indian Civil Service and the Colonial Service, in the late 19th century British degrees acquired a lustre that - particularly in India and East Asia - has lasted into the 21st century. However, for many colonial students, a stay in Britain was not a happy one. Then, as now, overseas students paid fees for their degrees. The lucky ones travelled on scholarships awarded by colonial governments, with church missions sending others from India, Africa and the Caribbean to the Scottish universities.

But the limited number of such opportunities meant that most students from these regions had to finance their studies themselves. Even those on scholarships frequently found it difficult to make ends meet and consequently many lived on the edge of poverty. In 1928, the Colonial Office worried about the privately funded African students who "drift about doing nothing and getting into bad company". Several students from India had to be repatriated because they found themselves in serious financial difficulty and a number even committed suicide. Virtually all encountered racism.

Such experiences led many students to join anti-colonial nationalist movements. In London, associations such as the India League and the West African Students' Union, established in the 1920s, agitated for independence. Inspired by the ideas of the London School of Economics' Harold Laski and BronisBaw Malinowski, they mounted increasingly stinging attacks on both the political and educational aspects of the imperial project. "I am well aware", wrote Jomo Kenyatta, later the first president of Kenya, in the preface to his 1938 book Facing Mount Kenya, "that I could not do justice to the subject without offending those 'professional friends of the African' who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him."

Things were very different for white students from the settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Although they too sought the prestige of British degrees, they benefited from, rather than suffered under, the racial ideologies that permeated turn-of-the-century academia.

In these colonies, universities were not established by the British state but by the settlers themselves, serving as symbols of colonial maturity and social and political self-sufficiency. As independent institutions, they set and assessed their own curricula. Initially these universities focused on cultivating local elites through the provision of a liberal and classical education, but with improvements in transport and communication brought by steam ships and the telegraph, they increasingly sought to reposition themselves as members of the growing international academic community. From the 1880s onwards, they instituted leave of absence (early "sabbatical") programmes, enabling their staff to stay in touch with colleagues abroad, and sent their graduates to take second degrees in British universities by sponsoring travelling-scholarship schemes.

These measures helped to foster a fourth kind of 19th-century university internationalisation that is sometimes lost to view: long- distance networks. The experience of academic travel, and the strong personal connections forged by it, created powerful and intimate links between academics working in Britain and those in Canada, Australasia and South Africa. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such networks were crucial to all aspects of an academic career. They were especially critical when making academic appointments. In this period, settler and British universities alike placed their faith in the trusted, private recommendations of disciplinary specialists. This placed candidates who were known to selectors at a considerable advantage and served to carry academics out to the colonies, but connections made in Dominion universities could be just as decisive as those made in Britain.

The careers of the academics who held the chair of chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Sydney provide a good example. Beginning with Archibald Liversidge (professor from 1874 to 1907), long-distance networks enabled four successive professors of organic chemistry to proceed from Sydney to chairs in the UK. Among some of the better-known "British" scholars who had colonial university experience are Samuel Alexander, Gilbert Murray, William Osler, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, William Lawrence Bragg, William Keith Hancock, Kenneth Sisam and Zelman Cowen.

Such networks extended similar cultures of male sociability, similar codes of academic behaviour and similar disciplinary approaches across the universities of the British settler world. They helped create the "communities of practice" that economic geographers argue are so crucial to innovation. However, such networks also effectively marginalised those who did not possess the social and cultural capital that reliance on networks privileged. Women, black and Indian scholars, those who worked in junior and often unacknowledged capacities, and those who lacked the "right" connections all operated on the edges of British academia in this period. Like those working in adjunct and casualised capacities today, such people were marginalised from the international networks that their own work enabled, even as they participated in the scholarly project.

University internationalisation in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a highly unequal and contingent phenomenon. It was about imperial rule as well as education, exclusion as well as access, and it created discontentment as well as satisfaction. In this, it bears strong similarities to internationalisation today. If the UK higher education sector is to develop a critical understanding of its international entanglements, it needs to pay close attention to this earlier university world. It helped to establish the uneven lines of global connection that, in the field of higher education as elsewhere, remain with us to this day.

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