Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Furthering Equality in International HE

Today, some thoughts following the HEA seminar at the University of Surrey, which took the ambitious theme of Furthering Equality in International Higher Education: UK and transnational programmes 

As one delegate remarked, in many ways internationalisation and equality/diversity seem clearly linked topics, but it's remarkable how rarely the two appear on the same agenda (with occasional honourable exceptions such as work by the Equality Challenge Unit).  Later, I'll come back to what came out in today's attempts to combine the two.

But first, I want to welcome another rare juxtaposition of topics.  The three papers focused respectively on the experience of international (specifically Chinese) students in the UK, the experience of outwardly mobile students from the UK (in this case, on Erasmus work placements) and the experience of students taking UK degrees under transnational education (TNE) arrangements (in Hong Kong).  While these are generally agreed to be three of the principal aspects of student-focused internationalisation, they are rarely considered holistically, leading to some odd disconnects in the literature.

Bringing these together generated some clear common themes:

First, the potentially transformative nature of international education, as widely evidenced in the work of those who have written about "study abroad", mainly focused on credit-based mobility of organised mobility from the US and to a lesser extent European sending countries.  Contrast this with the literature on international students coming to the main receiving countries, which for quite some period focused on adjustment problems and deficit models, 'otherising' the sojourner.  Therefore Qing Gu's work on the transformative effects of UK study on Chinese students brings a welcome recognition that this transformative power is not uni-directional, and applies to all globally mobile students.  This, of course, raises a crucial question about TNE: can the same transformative effects be found from having an international education at home?  Johanna Waters research suggests that this is far from certain.  Moreover, some authors (eg Luke 2012) would argue that if all higher education is or should be transformational, we have to consider how we disentangle which transformative effects are due to the 'international' as opposed to the 'higher education' experience.

Second, the explanatory power of Bourdieu's ideas of social, education and cultural capital are incredibly useful at helping us understand why some students move, and others do not.  Hannah Deakin's work on Erasmus placement students finds language and finance to be significant barriers for UK students, coupled with lack of encouragement (or at times active opposition) from faculty.  I would suggest that while in some cases finance is a genuine barrier, there is sufficient evidence that both language and finance are barriers that can be overcome to suggest that the real issue is students' lack of social and mobility capital.  Importantly, when faculty members themselves have mobility capital, they are effective at sharing it with their students (returning students likewise do), explaining why students are far more likely to move when faculty are active international champions.

Third, a common theme in all three modalities was the importance of employability.  For students, the personal developmental aspects were important - perhaps increasingly so over time - but one test of their international experience was how it was seen by employers.

But what about equality? 

In relation to students who had studied in the UK, we touched briefly on the issues of inequalities in global flows, both at national level, and at the level of the individual.  What went unspoken was the role of financial capital here, as well as social and educational capital.  Although in countries such as China there has been a vast expansion in the numbers able to engage in study abroad, still only 2% of Chinese students study abroad.  Opportunities remain very much the preserve of elites (although here second-tier elites, as the first tier study at home), albeit on a larger scale than previously. 

In relation to TNE, which potentially extends international opportunities to those not able to leave home, the question was asked: "Is the involvement of UK universities about (equal) opportunities, or opportunism?"  The consensus was that it was perhaps 80% the latter, rather than primarily attempts to extend widening participation approaches on a global scale - although there was a recognition that for some teaching staff, the latter might be the primary motivation, and even at institutional level equality aspects might be an added bonus.  There are some interesting parallels between the perceptions of TNE as second rate compared to domestic public HE in Hong Kong, and perceptions of "more means worse" in relation to increased access in the UK, suggesting that in both cases elites seek to preserve their social and cultural capital by questioning the validity of new waves of provision.

In relation to outward mobility, Deakin's suggestion is that Erasmus work placements have potentially extended opportunities for study abroad by removing some of the financial and linguistic barriers.  However, as Annette Kratz pointed out, current Student Finance England policies on funding students abroad are much less favourable for work placements than study abroad, assuming that the former are paid, which is not always the case.  There is scope for a review of policy here if the full potential of work placements to increase outward mobility of UK students is to be realised.

Finally, one other surprising thing about today:  nobody even mentioned MOOCs (Massively Overhyped Online Courses as I like to call them), but if I were to extrapolate I would say that today's themes confirm that MOOCs are unlikely to achieve the personal transformative effects of study abroad in terms of social and cultural capital.  Moreover, if TNE is seen as the poor relation of in-country study, MOOCs must carry even less credibility.  However, MOOCs undoubtedly have a role in increasing access to HE globally.  As Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera, said this week:
"This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can't afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone."
 Now, if only the rest of the HE sector could adopt the same policy...

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