Globalisation seems to describe two connected things: increased proximity and more immediate interaction. I’ll look at these in principle and then how HE sits within all of this.
To travel and be travelled to…
Changes in technology mean that we’re able to travel and communicate at a speed and on a scale that was unimaginable even half a generation ago. You can be on the other side of the world within 24 hours, or speak to someone just about anywhere – with a video link, from a hand-held device – in real time. Our ability to connect with one other is far greater than it ever was before. Major events such as natural disasters, changes in economic markets, or conflict zones, are visible as soon as they happen, and their influence can be seen and felt worldwide, sometimes immediately. This ‘closening’ of people all over the world means that we are able to influence – and be influenced – in ways not previously possible.
At one level you can see how ideas or videos ‘go viral’, being shared and discussed by millions all over the world within a few hours or days of first being uploaded. Even this little blog has been read in 80 countries!! At the ‘biggest’ level, organisations can shape what happens in places that were previously hard to reach. You can buy a bottle of Coke, a Big Mac, or a VW, pretty much anywhere. You also get organisations or multinationals who influence what governments do, how tax works (or doesn’t work), and who goes to war over what. The international reach has always been there – we’ve had international trade and foreign policy for thousands of years – but the difference now is that it’s much faster and reaches further.
Some people say that this is leading to a flattening of culture, where everything is becoming more similar. This is possibly true at a superficial level. Ideas do spread, from music and fashion to democracy and capitalism. But what happens on the ground is always domestically or more locally flavoured. Coke is similar but not exactly the same everywhere (I know – I’ve done an unofficial survey!), McDonald’s menus have a local twist wherever you go, and the ‘same’ car has different names and specifications in different parts of the world.
The Global University?
What does this mean for universities? I’ll split this into three areas: people, universities, and policy.
Imagine being one of the ‘Choshu Five’, the first Japanese international students, smuggled out of the country to study in London in the 1860s. The journey would have taken months and Japan had been closed to the outside world for hundreds of years. Compare that with now, where there are about 5 million international students worldwide. Access to film and media coverage of most corners of the globe is widely available, and international travel is a common occurrence for many. You can look at many universities online, examine the course content, email the people running the course, and get a virtual tour of the campus. As an international student you may not know what it feels and smells like before you come, but you’re unlikely to be arriving blind. There is also a much more visible international labour market. This has long been the case for multinational conglomerates, where you could start working in one office and end up being posted all over the world. Many people now, though, expect to be – or are prepared to be – globally mobile, and can move between countries and employers. This is not the case for everyone, but it’s certainly not a rarity .
Universities have always been international, but what has changed is that they interact and are compared on a rapidly moving, global scale. They compete for students, staff, research funding, and status, and academics publish on globally accessible knowledge platforms. I’ve written about the competition for prestige and international students, and how the market for these is dominated by a select few. The higher education media is full of comparable job opportunities from Australia to Kazakhstan to Qatar, and the international flavour of faculties is seen by some rankings as a measure of quality. The internet has revolutionised academic publication, and you can access most content online nowadays, downloaded straight onto your desktop. When I was an undergrad we had to get a bus out to a British Library warehouse in the middle of nowhere to photocopy articles not available in our university library! There is a massive opportunity here to be able to share knowledge, collaborate, and forge interesting and fruitful relationships the world over. There is also a risk, though, that the wealthy, elite, global ‘North’ marginalises the rest by hoovering up the talent and money. As I’ve written elsewhere, rankings ‘encourage’ universities to model themselves on a particular – largely western – university model, and those at the top have a permanent lead in the race.
There is a great deal of discussion around ‘the decline of the nation’ in the globalisation literature. What we can see is that no country makes its own legislation purely by and for itself, but is bound by international treaties, international law, and international competition and collaboration. What is also apparent is that supranational organisations like the OECD, European Union, and World Bank, are particularly effective at promoting particular agendas worldwide. Globalisation in one sense facilitates this, because influence can travel so far and so fast. It offers these ‘supranationals’ an opportunity to push further, and their work promotes globalisation itself; it is probably worth mentioning that universities play their part, too. Supranationals by definition sit ‘above’ the national level, but it is clear if you look at their voting systems and councils, that some countries have far more clout than others. In other words, a few countries or regions – those where the ‘best’ universities are – are able to have a hand in promoting particular agendas. For example, the OECD publishes huge comparative studies such as PISA that highlight ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ education systems, the Bologna Process involved massive changes to over 40 national degree structures, and the World Bank can insist that countries open up their education markets to international competition as a condition of development loans. Whether this is in the interests of the countries being compared, changed or ‘opened up’ is a hotly debated set of issues.
Where does this leave us? As individuals, we’re more mobile, connected and globally aware than ever before, and have the opportunity to make friendships and learn more from – and about – each other. We study or work at universities that are often (but not always) striving to be visible, or attractive, in their national settings and all over the world. And there are global trends in university sectors that involve more links and more competition. The benefits of this situation are not equally shared by any means – although we can try to make it more equal – but there’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating situation to be part of.