16 Dec 2016

An international outlook: what the international officer sees

235x184_winterforum2016-coverontabletSo much of life is a balance; yin and yang, man and nature, the Unthank sisters. An important role of international officers is to enable colleagues to view of their institution balanced by what is happening elsewhere in the world. There are a number of examples of this, but this blog post, accompanying the latest issue of Forum on ‘The new international officer’, is about one: balancing higher education as long-term public service and short-term private enterprise.


 
Higher Education in the UK is shifting its balance toward being more of a private enterprise. When I look internationally, I see examples where an alternative is succeeding. The prevailing discourse in the UK currently is ‘austerity.’ At home I hear nearly every news bulletin talk about cuts to services. We just can’t afford public libraries or free care for the elderly. If people benefit, the discourse goes, why shouldn’t they pay?

The public good

At work, our seniors talk about the need to make our service more efficient. Funding has been cut, so we need to bring in more money and spend less on salaries. Also, especially as tuition and accommodation fees rise, the students want value for money.  And in order for them to leave satisfied customers, we should provide what they ask for.  Their feedback, after all, informs next year’s league table position.
 
It was refreshing therefore to read how two female powerhouses of (South and North) American  politics, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet reassert the role of higher education as a public good. In her campaign, Clinton had promised to offer free tuition to the 83% of families earning under US$125,000 per year, reasserting that public investment is justified because public good is an outcome of higher education. Bachelet has long been supportive of ending the ‘educational apartheid’ in Chile by reversing the years of privatisation of education. Implementation in Chile has been met with challenges and Clinton’s critics, too, are vocal, but the message is clear: competition and private funding hasn’t worked.
 
It was also interesting to read that “the continued belief in education as a public right in Germany appears steadfast” and, indeed, that many USA students now travel to Germany to benefit from its free and globalised university provision. The Secretary General of the German Academic Exchange Service estimates around 50% of those students stay, paying taxes and adding to the local skilled labour market.

A new role

I was excited learning about these alternatives. Perhaps part of our role as international officers can be to share them. Because whether it be in our professional roles or because we have a personal interest, our international outlook gives us a perspective that might be different from others.

Reputation

In a world where people are increasingly expendable and brand is increasingly valuable, what seems important to universities is reputation. Universities in the UK are so worried about their reputation that they have enacted gagging orders and made payments to protect them, to the value of around £11 million over the last three years. Some say that the need to have a good reputation is diluting education and depriving lecturers, as in the chase for positive student survey results universities pander to students rather than stretch them to become independent learners.
 
But the reality is that reputation is important. So the question then becomes: What kind of reputation do we want? Referring to the impact of Brexit, Matt Flinders wrote recently of the “hidden risk […] that universities undermine their reputation and credibility if they accept, however unintentionally, discriminatory practices”. It is difficult for universities of course, because their funding, their life-source, also largely comes from the organisations that may be encouraging discriminatory practices, ie national governments.[i] Matt warns, though, that universities “cannot be allowed to drift like some flotsam or jetsam in increasingly choppy political seas” and I agree. Reputation can be built differently.
 
I think particularly of colleagues in countries facing persecution for their views. I know through our work with Cara that academics there are being persecuted for upholding their own academic integrity and views. But they continue to do so. And throughout history, we know knowledge has advanced, and social reform has taken place, because people have had the courage to speak out. The right reputation is worth fighting for.
 
We can see from the USA that students can be the drivers for change where professionals might be cautious. At the University of Missouri, students are mobilising over race inequality and forcing significant leadership change. The authors of ‘Embracing Student Activism’ point out that embracing this activism adds legitimacy to a university’s commitments to developing academic excellence and globally responsible citizens. A reputation built on challenging the status quo and on remaining steadfast on key issues of social justice, can be enduring.

World view

Defending academic freedom, changing national education policy and even directly influencing university policy will be beyond the remit of most international officers. It is certainly beyond mine! But the message of this blog post is that as international officers, we can read widely, think constructively, and share freely our collective stories of internationalisation. It is easy to become trapped in one way of thinking, when we hear it echoed by colleagues in other universities, see it on our televisions and read about it in our national journals and newspapers. But when we take our eyes off league tables and look to the perspectives of other countries, international officers can add richness and a different perspective to balance discussions which can be in danger of becoming polarised and insular.
 
The latest issue of the EAIE’s member magazine Forum, on ‘The new international officer’ is hot off the press. EAIE members can access the magazine in full from the Resources corner. Non-members can download the Editor’s pick for free. Become an EAIE member to gain access to quality international education resources like Forum.
 
Victoria is International Partnerships Officer at Durham University, UK.
 
[i] In October 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to oblige UK firms to publically list the names and numbers of non-UK workforce.