Transcending borders, beyond transnational education

Transcending borders, beyond transnational education

Today’s blog post is the second in a three-part series focusing on the 2016 Conference Conversation Starter. This year’s theme is ‘Imagine…’ and, with this in mind, author Martin Hall from the University of Cape Town makes a plea for a novel and improved understanding of the concept of ‘borderless education’. In light of the current refugee situation worldwide, Martin invites us to take a closer look at this evolving concept through the lens of the present and the future.

‘Borderless’ higher education was conceived for a world free of restrictions on movement, born in the optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty-five years later, to be borderless may mean being trapped in a long-term transit camp, without any freedom of movement or access to education opportunity. At the same time, digital technologies now offer opportunities that were largely unimagined in the early 1990s.  With violence escalating and more people displaced by conflict than ever before, it is timely for the EAIE to be focusing on the refugee crisis in all its complexity. Borderless education – and student mobility more generally – needs rethinking.

Transnational education

Traditional borderless education is part of the wider field of transnational education (TNE); study programmes where learners are located in a country other than the one in which the awarding institution is based. Many universities depend on substantial TNE enrolments for achieving viable operating margins – particularly when the fees that they can charge their own nationals are capped. A long-term and substantial student refugee crisis is at odds with such financial incentives – refugee students don’t make money for the universities that enrol them. Further, well-established forms of assistance for refugee students, which have served for many years, are now inadequate. Refugee students often lack documentation. Institutions where they previously studied may not be functioning; an enquiry for academic information about them may put them – and others – at risk.

In the early years of TNE, the concept of the border was physical.  The ideal of borderless education was of free movement either without restriction or with nominal regulation. Today, the ideal must incorporate the opposite: a model that is also effective in overcoming the closure of physical borders. As fences go up and border crossings become impassable for many, credible forms of borderless education will seek to provide access to opportunity despite arbitrary and unjust constraints. This will require new sets of principles.

Social justice

Providing for refugee students is a matter of social justice and human rights, aligned with the principles of international conventions. It is invariably associated with violence and its consequences. Many of those caught up in the new refugee crisis live with the trauma of conflict. They also experience the epistemic violence of the wide range of prejudices that are increasingly accepted as normal politics. These conditions must shape the curriculum of borderless education in recognising that, as always, the experiences and perceptions that students bring into any classroom, in every discipline, shape the ways in which knowledge is received, interpreted and applied.

The new borderless education must also be political, taking a stand against prejudices that undermine the longstanding ideals of the university as a public institution. It must challenge the consequences of restrictions on free movement, the scale and extent of the contemporary displacement of people against their will and the invariable associations with violence.


Appropriate choices of technology will be critical. In itself, technology is neutral; it both enables lifelines of contact across the razor wire and directs the drones that kill from another continent. It is the ways in which available technologies are used that will be politically charged. Considerations range from the carelessness of assuming that those living in marginalised circumstances can afford devices that are taken for granted in affluent economies, to the privacy and security of personal information in the face of surveillance.

Many who teach, or who are committed to research and its implementation across a broad swathe of disciplines, see finding new and effective ways to adjust to these circumstances as part of the role of the university as a public institution.  There need to be new coalitions led by international organisations that can bring these initiatives together, achieving economies of scale, common ways of working and sustainability.

Seizing the momentum

Earlier this year, the EAIE launched a cross-national focus on the implications of the refugee crisis for universities and the new approaches that are under development and in the early stages of implementation. Similar initiatives have been launched by other organisations, such as the Institute for International Education. The focus on this theme at the EAIE’s Liverpool conference in September this year is an opportunity to turbocharge this momentum.

There are many ways to characterise this new form of borderlessness; Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns provides a compelling account of life in Dadaab, one of the largest and oldest refugee camps in Kenya’s semi-arid border lands. Here, a university-age generation has never left the camp, completing secondary education under the most difficult conditions imaginable.

Knowledge of the world outside Dadaab is entirely virtual, presenting through social media and online resources opportunities that can be imagined but not, at present attained. A redefined and aligned concept of borderless higher education, enabled through appropriate collaboration, has every opportunity to provide new forms of access that are appropriate for our difficult times.

Martin is Emeritus Professor at University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Tune in this Friday for the last piece of the puzzle on the Conference Conversation Starter! The full publication is available for download on the EAIE Events App and online, and you’ll have your very own hard copy in your conference bag.