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Mutuality and diplomacy in education
  - Comment -
By: Professor Tan Sri Dato’ Dzulkifli Abd Razak
Source: New Sunday Times - May 11, 2014
   

THE British Council’s annual international education conference, Going Global, which was held in Miami recently, was the 10th edition since its launch in 2004.

Over the decade, the conference was held in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. This year is the first time the event is held across the Atlantic Ocean. Recognised as a meeting of leaders of international education from around the globe, it attracted more than 1,000 participants this year. The three-day event focused on the theme: Inclusion, Innovation and Impact.

While innovation has been a common topic in many conferences, it is less so for issues relating to inclusion and impact. Still there are already those who are quick to coin the term “inclusive innovation”, adding more complexity to what innovation is all about.

I was involved in the panel discussion, Is There Room for Mutuality? The role of higher education in diplomacy seemed to focus on inclusion and impact. It is a challenging one because “mutuality” is not a catchphrase in the education sector which is now increasingly shaped by for-profit commercial interest. Coupled with the decline in public spending and austerity drives, they add pressure on higher education with little room for “mutuality” to be seriously considered. Instead, mergers and remodelling seem to be the order of the day even though it may mean changing horses midstream, as the case in Malaysia of late. After all, education today is more a function of economics, and no longer about equitable access, what more, democratisation of knowledge.

In similar ways, diplomacy falls by the wayside when it comes to inclusiveness.

Diplomacy couched in the language of “soft power” is making the situation worse when it comes to higher education although universities and institutions of higher learning are most suitable for inclusive talent development.

Unfortunately this is not the case in the global scene — where more often than not — education is based on an unequal partnership equation. For example, pushed by demographic shifts in many developed countries, “mutuality” tends to be biased towards national interest with great impact on brain drain.

Nations aspiring to be on a par with others — but unable to retain a pool of talented people — cannot hope for “mutuality” since brain power equity must be foremost for this to happen.

Under these circumstances, internationalisation of education becomes a farce when stakeholders and governments expect institutions to make an impact on national growth programmes and contribute to societal change through soft power agendas.

Europe, perhaps, knows this better than any region, given the experience of the Berlin Conference of 1884 — which celebrates its 130 anniversary this year — where the European counterparts scrambled to carve out Africa according to their colonial ambitions to the point of abusing diplomacy.

The African continent was naively portrayed as a blank canvas on which the hegemonic agendas were brazenly executed. The devastating impact lasted until today — not least on education generally. Yet there seems to another round of such “diplomacy” taking place, this time involving ambitious Asian countries as well.

A good way to summarise the current mindset is by quoting John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations: “Diplomacy is not an end (in) itself if it does not advance US interests.” To date, international higher education is not too far off from this notion, with limited space for “mutuality”, if at all.

As identified by one enlightened international expert, “mutuality” is difficult to come about if the current circumstances including the trend to commercialise higher education focus on graduate and doctoral education and prevailing acceptance of rankings remain, leading to the fundamental question of who controls education?

All these can be powerful barriers to the idea of “mutuality” in particular, given the bitter experiences of the so-called international diplomacy that resonates until today.

In this context, the International Association of Universities 4th Global Survey on Internationalisation of Higher Education: What is Internationalisation and can it be measured? (see http://iau-aiu.net/content/iau-global-surveys) is timely in trying to create an improved framework whereby “mutuality” can proceed naturally by restoring the ethos of education to level the playing field internationally.

Interestingly enough, the audience at the conference felt that internationalisation is not a once-size-fits-all effort, and it is about building trust and innovation which augur well for “mutuality”.



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