Does the internationalisation of higher education pay a peace dividend?

Does the internationalisation of higher education pay a peace dividend?

Those of us who believe deeply in the power of international education are often challenged to bring our passion for the internationalisation of higher education from the margins of institutional activity to its central priorities. In doing so, we are often dismayed that others do not share our conviction that the global engagement of higher education and the cross-border movement of its faculty and students should be aimed at promoting peace and international understanding. 

Detractors readily point out that higher education does not operate on the same principles. Indeed, the dominant argument for investment in educational institutions by the public and the private sectors is based on a very different narrative. It is focused on higher education as an economic engine and as a provider of workforce development. This view is promoted by national governments as well as by international organisations like the OECD. It is a profoundly utilitarian narrative for the role of higher education and leaves little room for altruism.

Monetary focus

Even when international education squeezes into this leading narrative, it is frequently focused on financial benefits. In many countries this comes in the form of attracting international students not for their contribution to cross-cultural dialogue but for their monetary impact. With this focus, international education becomes a very practical seat-filling, tuition-paying, market-moving exercise. When academic partnerships are formed between higher education institutions, it is frequently to deliver educational programmes in pragmatic professional fields but rarely in peace studies. Some would say that the utilitarian narrative is having a dramatic impact on the field of international education and its priorities. If this is so, the ultimate guideline for international education relations is ‘do not proceed unless it has an economic return’.

Within this powerful and deeply economic narrative is there room for other narratives that broaden the purpose of higher education to include greater balance between pragmatism and idealism? Can we educate our students not just for workforce skills but also for empathy and intercultural competence? Can we share knowledge among our faculty and build research networks that will not only contribute to the economy but also help with the challenges of inequality, ethnic and sectarian conflict as well as human rights? Can institutions develop international partnerships that have economic objectives as well as societal improvement objectives that include concerns for civil society?

Strong values

These questions have special implications for the international education community. They should prompt renewed efforts to broaden and deepen the narrative for higher education as a global platform for mutual understanding leading to the peace dividend. We can begin by understanding that the outcomes and success of international education are deeply linked to the values of our institutions and the way they define themselves. If we hope that international education will produce demonstrable outcomes, it cannot float unattached to the values and behaviour of the institutions which anchor academic exchange and engagement. Institutions that allow ethnic, racial or religious bigotry and hatred to be incited on their campuses are not platforms for salutary outcomes. Nor are those that permit only narrowly prescribed conversations among students and faculty and move swiftly to punish anyone who dares to venture beyond the prescription.

Keeping the peace

Some war torn nations have already recognised the important role of higher education in peace keeping through the creation of institutions that are responsive to sectarian conflict and greater inclusion of oppositional groups. We can see this in countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Columbia, and the conflict zones of the Balkans. Unfortunately, most of this activity is a post-conflict response.

Can we be more proactive and effective as international educators to help expand the ‘value proposition’ for our colleges and universities? Is it possible to successfully link humanitarian values with economic values as we shepherd the process of internationalisation? And, most importantly, will the result pay a peace dividend?

If you’re attending the EAIE Conference this week, please join us for Dialogue 3: Does the internationalisation of higher education pay a peace dividend? on Thursday 18 September at 14:00 for a lively discussion to address these and other related issues and questions.

By Patti McGill Peterson, American Council on Education, USA