West is best?

Dr Sheila Trahar, Reader (International Higher Education), University of Bristol, UK

Published 19 April 2016

As more higher education institutions around the world engage in internationalisation, it is crucial that this process is not simply carried out according to the westernised (mainly Anglo-Saxon and primarily English-speaking) prototype in country-contexts where it would be inappropriate. Particularly in postcolonial contexts.

Unfortunately, rather than consider how internationalisation can be conceptualised according to the needs of the local environment, policies are often adopted that simply mimic those that have already been developed in ‘the west’. The danger then is of replicating a neoliberal, market-driven strategy that may, albeit inadvertently, identify mobility as the most important dimension and that also proves to be contextually and culturally inappropriate.

English language courses are not the same as internationalised courses

English language courses are not the same as internationalised courses

Definitions and constructions of internationalisation that focus on reciprocity, mutuality, and intercultural understanding may well be preferable to those that emphasise the economic advantages of marketisation and mobility. However, even when such dimensions are included in an institution’s internationalisation strategy, they may not always be visible in the institution’s activities. An example is given by Dr Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh, in her ACU article of 21 January 2016 on internationalisation in India and the Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), in which she bemoans the absence of exchange, dialogue, and reciprocity in this initiative, expressing some consternation that Indian universities, rather than being active and equal partners in the endeavour, will be positioned as passive recipients.

Dr Mukherjee-Parikh also expresses dismay at the participating academics being from North American, Australian and European universities, rather than from institutions that are closer to India, both geographically and culturally. Academics from these latter institutions may have perspectives and experiences to offer that are more congruent with the local context and, moreover, be more able to challenge the ‘from the west to the rest’ narrative that seems to be implicit if not explicit in GIAN.

In countries where English is not the first language, preliminary steps towards internationalisation are often dominated by a perceived need to teach in English in order to attract international students and staff. This desire for greater mobility is seen as significant in internationalising an institution, in particular if one has an eye on the global rankings of universities.

The importance of internationalising curricula, embedded in many institutions’ internationalisation strategies in order to lessen the dominance of ‘western’ knowledges and teaching practises and to develop intercultural understanding and global responsibility, can, unfortunately, become lost in the efforts to market the institution internationally. The cultural benefits of internationalisation thus remain at the level of rhetoric rather then being enacted through innovative curriculum development and structural changes.

How it's done in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, those such as Anthony Cheung and Shun Wing Ng argue against internationalisation as Europeanisation or Americanisation. This is an argument that has been put forward by many ‘western’ academics, including me, for some years (e.g. Trahar). Cheung and Ng highlight commendable activities such as internationalising curricula, undertaking work of local significance, bringing together cross-national and cross-cultural experiences and knowledge, and appreciating diversity and plurality across nations and societies.

In reality, however, internationalisation in Hong Kong tends to be conflated with ‘Mainlandisation’ i.e. the recruitment of increased numbers of students from mainland China, to which there can be considerable resistance. Ng argues that re-engineering curricula is a way for universities in Hong Kong to be motivated by social justice concerns as well as financial drivers in their desire to internationalise. This is unlikely to happen, however, unless internationalisation is understood and accepted as being much broader than the recruitment of international (i.e. mainland) students.

The example of Thailand

Earlier this year, I participated in a British Council/Newton Fund workshop in Bangkok in which 30 academics from Thailand and the UK came together to share their experiences and understandings of internationalisation of higher education, to discuss methodological approaches suited to intercultural research and to work together to identify possible joint UK-Thailand research projects. Through this workshop, I learned how internationalisation is being theorised in Thailand, as Thai higher education embarks on the process.

Once again, the focus is mainly on mobility, both inward and outward, of students and staff with little apparent awareness of the complexities of learning, teaching and assessment in international environments or of internationalised curricula. An ‘international’ programme is one with English as the medium of instruction (EMI) that recruits students and academics from outside Thailand.

One criticism of these programmes is that they are aimed more at middle class Thais than they are at an international constituency and thus their potential for developing learning environments that are more diverse is, perhaps, somewhat limited. I learned that some Thai academics do not want to teach on such courses, irrespective of whether they have international students or not, for a variety of reasons, including a resistance to making any changes to their teaching.

An obligation to give academic service to the public and to preserve Thai cultures is embedded in the job description of Thai academics. Perhaps such worthy objectives should be embedded in internationalisation policies in this context?

Other examples in the region

The Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education’s Internationalisation Policy, 2011 regards the internationalisation of higher education as important in raising international awareness in Malaysians and inculcating a sense of national pride. Research on internationalisation in Malaysia tends, however, to focus on the increasing number of international students studying there, rather than addressing the complexities of international higher education environments.

Somewhat similarly, in Japan, internationalisation of higher education policy promotes Japanese culture and identity to the world, striving to resist globalisation and the dominance of English. The extent to which these admirable aims are achieved, however, given the rise of EMI programmes in that country, remains doubtful.


So, in conclusion, perhaps there are some common threads to be discerned. Firstly, when a university makes a decision to ‘internationalise’, in spite of what may be intentions to conceptualise that term much more widely than mobility and the economic advantages to the institution, those factors are, nonetheless, pritoritised.

Secondly, teaching in English is considered to be imperative, yet, doing so can be complex and problematic.

Finally, Paul Zeleza argues for ‘more empowering knowledges for the south and symmetrical forms of internationalisation in higher education’ in order to decentre the ‘hegemonic stranglehold of the Eurocentric epistemological order’.

I agree.

In order for ‘symmetrical forms of internationalisation’ to be enacted, however, any internationalisation process or strategy needs to provide opportunities for a university to examine its approaches to learning, teaching and assessment and how the content of the courses offered, and the knowledges that permeate disciplines, may privilege those from particular cultural contexts – which may not be the context of the university.

Jonathan Jansen, writing about post-apartheid South Africa, refers to post-conflict pedagogy, elements of which, I suggest, could usefully be integrated into internationalisation strategies, including the notion of pedagogical reciprocity in which ‘both sides are prepared to move toward each other’ (p. 268). This reflects a social transformative model of internationalisation that focusses on cross-cultural understanding and critical social analysis and one that those countries in the early stages of internationalising could adopt.

Were they to do so, they would be setting a powerful example to their peers in the Global North who may well need reminding that by walking along a more socially transformative path to internationalisation, universities can – and should – promote equity and social justice.

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