International education: a rethink

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 30-10-2011

IN my recent address at the Transnational Higher Education Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia co-organised by the National University Network of Indonesia and Universitas Bina Nusantara, I advocated a rethinking of what is commonly called “international education”. 

There are at least three reasons for doing so as we scan the international landscape today compared to what it was when the term was initially coined.

Firstly, it is increasingly clear that there is a failure to realise multiculturalism, notably in Europe, one of the main proponents of  international education.  

Leaders after leaders have publicly pronounced that multiculturalism is incompatible with their national values and the way of life that they hold dear.  

In Germany, it has “utterly failed”, a sentiment echoed by other major leaders of Europe.

Some have even added the religio-cultural dimension to their rejection of the concept.

These appeal to larger societal demand to close the doors to immigrants, especially of non-Western origin.

The deadly July massacre that took place in Oslo, Norway underscores how deep the resentment against multiculturalism can be when one takes into account the 1,500-odd page manifesto posted online that seems to be directed mostly at the so-called “multiculturalist”. 

One can only wonder what is the meaning and purpose of international education when the idea of multiculturalism is frowned upon?  This leads to the second reason, namely the hegemonic dimension that is subtly hidden in the agenda of international education.

What is promoted is not truly international, or even less so, universal; rather it is ethnocentricity of some kind.

As in the case of the Bologna Process, the promotion of a European dimension of higher education is clearly spelt out as though it is interchangeable with international perspective.

This is further underlined by the desire to create a European Higher Education Area supported by programmes that carry a hallmark of  European icons such as Erasmus, Copernicus, Socrates or Marie Curie to name a few.  

It implies that the values are principally European in nature, taught and transmitted in a way that it is to leave widespread influence as a “soft power ”  through education! Such an influence can go a long way when it involves the educated who will at some stage assume leadership roles on completing their education.

In short, instead of adopting a truly international mindset and world perspective, one has a blinkered viewpoint dubbed international! In the worst-case scenario, it can give rise to a “colonised” view that is hardly international in any respect.

The third reason has to do with the need for so much hypocrisy in advancing international education. It boils down to what education has been turned into today: a business.

Education, like most sectors, is now considered as revenue for governments and nations, especially in developed countries.

When these countries become ageing societies with dwindling enrolment in universities, it creates a threatening situation where tertiary institutions will eventually have to be closed down.

This is made worst by a near zero birth rate. This has happened in some countries because of lack of funds, arising from poor enrolment numbers.

With the excess capacity available in universities, attracting foreign students under the truncated “international” banner seems imperative even though most are of the non-Western origin.

With it comes the hike in tuition fees that is no longer confined to international students but, of late, affects local students as well — an indication of how desperate the situation has become.

What is increasingly clear is that international education is becoming a “slogan” to serve narrow economic and other parochial agendas. 

This includes hegemonic intents that remain concealed from the undiscerning students.

The practice of ranking and league tables makes it even more difficult to notice such motives as it is claimed to be international in context and command widespread interest, oblivious of the short comings.

- The writer is vice chancellor of Albukhary International University