27 Aug 2015

Towards a more balanced discourse in internationalisation

mic_ieasaMany would say that internationalisation of higher education has become an industry, and some would even go as far as to say that international higher education conferences have become too commercial. At the 19th Annual Conference of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA), in Port Elizabeth, it became clear that a change in discourse will come from the Global South. Talks and debates had a different character than in most other international higher education conferences. Professionals in the Global North have important lessons to learn.

Most conferences address topics like student and staff mobility, credential evaluation, credit transfer, student recruitment, joint degree programmes, cooperation, internationalisation strategy, internationalisation at home, etc as if they were entities in their own right. At the IEASA conference, topics were addressed in the context of the world in which we live. To be more precise, at IEASA, traditional internationalisation topics are just a side note in a more fundamental discussion about the role of academia and international education in facing societal challenges not only in South Africa, but globally. Internationalisation is treated like it should be: as a means to an end.

Going a level deeper

Whereas in most conferences there is an exchange of best practices in order for people to learn how to work smarter, it seems that IEASA tries to establish a platform for discussion on a more fundamental level. For instance, xenophobia was extensively discussed – an unfortunate reality not only in South Africa, but equally in many parts of the world, including Europe. What can universities and international educators do to stem the tide? Bring it into the curriculum and make sure students are conscious of what is going on, helping them to see the world differently. Topics such as “before physical mobility the mind needs to travel” were presented and discussed with passion, ideals, and a sense of urgency. Yes, this topic is relevant for internationalisation at home, but it is approached from a completely different angle.

Challenging the status quo

In different ways, the conference questioned the status quo in internationalisation, challenged the way we do things, and criticised the present discourse that is dominated by the Global North. After criticising the developing world for ‘copy and pasting’ practices from the developed world, IEASA called for giving internationalisation back to the global community in order for it to become a truly global discourse.

Ubuntu and a new commons

A publication from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, edited by Nico Jooste, Hans de Wit and Savo Heleta, was launched during the conference. In this book, Higher Education, Partnerships for the Future, Nico Jooste re-introduces the Medieval English concept of the ‘commons’, arguing that we have to construct a space where collaboration and cooperation are based on respect and equality. In order to not experience another ‘tragedy of the commons’, this space should be ruled by Ubuntu – I am who I am because of you. As one of the keynote speakers noted: “in a partnership, it is not about ‘I am here to teach you’. No, we are here to learn from each other!”

The hope was expressed that cooperation between higher education institutions from the BRICS countries can indeed create such a space. New forms of partnerships might emerge that will do justice to the specific qualities and needs of institutions from the developing world. During the conference, rankings were mentioned as instruments of the Global North that do not address what universities in developing countries achieve by lifting the populations and economies of their countries.

Internationalisation as an instrument

The passion with which societal questions were discussed infused the debate about how internationalisation of higher education should be an instrument in achieving positive societal goals. Internationalisation should not be seen as a world unto itself or as a bubble, but rather as an important tool to address societal issues on a global scale. We, in the Global North, sometimes lack this perspective and, as a result, the inspiration and sense of urgency.

To put words and dreams into action, at the closing of the conference a new initiative was announced: next year’s IEASA conference will not take place. Instead, a global conference will be organised in Kruger Park. This is the materialisation of one of the ideas discussed during the Global Dialogue in 2014. It will be an attempt to create a space where people from underrepresented parts of the world in the field of international higher education can meet and, in the ‘commons’, start to build a new discourse of and for internationalisation. It would seem that this is exactly what we need.

Leonard Engel is the Executive Director of the EAIE