Internationalizing Higher Education? — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Aug. 17, 2017

One of the words most frequently heard in discussions about higher education in recent years is “internationalization,” sometimes used for describing the adoption of “international” standards and sometimes in the context of educational “exchange.” There have been some encouraging new developments in both areas in the past few years, but many old habits also persist. Some of the bad practices must really go, while some emerging ones deserve a boost.

Perhaps the worst practice used in the name of updating education is our university officials going on expensive trips abroad without much of an educational purpose to begin with. Certainly, some of the institutional leaders and scholars do it with a vision, learn and bring back new ideas, and foster change. But, much more often, it’s all limited to signing memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with foreign universities, then some shopping and (nowadays) a lot of photo updates on Facebook—with little or no follow up with the signatories after the traveling heads of our institutions have returned home. This is utter corruption of the idea of creating exchange and partnership, and if it isn’t stopped, even honest efforts will continue to be seen with suspicion—both at home and abroad.

The flip side of our local university leaders having fun on public dime is their inviting foreign experts without first helping the expert understand the local context. I have seen this problem more in the private sector, where perhaps the objective was in fact just to show it off; but I’ve also observed public institutions participating in this ritual, seemingly for different reasons. In many cases, such “consultancy” work is meaningful and its impact lasting. However, the problem in this case is more of ineptitude than of insincerity. Too often, the hosts take the visitor for granted. “Oh, he’s a world expert on the subject.” Or, more simply, “You know, she’s from Britain.”

Many visiting experts start by guesstimating how many decades Nepal is “behind” on the issue, dooming the project from the outset with their mindset. They offer substance on the subject, but on their own terms, and when they leave, so do their great ideas. People on the ground may not know how to implement new practices, or have the resource needed, or see any professional incentive to even conceptually embrace new perspectives shared by the visitor. After some time, perhaps under a new administration, the same process gets repeated. Expert comes, presents talks, may even create new curricula and guidelines, learns little, and goes. This silly culture, engendered by nation/culture based arrogance and inferiority complex, needs retiring also.

So, there’s the travel-happy official whose greatest interest seems to be sharing pictures of himself on from around the world—besides collecting handsome bhatta [allowance] when possible. And there’s the parachute consultant who may not know that her great ideas evaporated off the hot tea at the final ceremony while she was getting decked with garlands.

Fortunately, there are other, better vehicles of internationalization and exchange of ideas in higher education. The impact of these other means and methods may not be as visible, system-wide, or focused where most needed. But their collective and gradual effects deserve recognition, and promotion.

The first of these alternatives involves individual scholars who visit places, bring new ideas, and change or improve at least their own practice—often influencing their colleagues and institutions as well. Some of these scholars are returnees of overseas study, others may be members of traveling teams seen on Facebook who felt responsible to do more.

The second, less visible, mode of exchange is increasingly happening in virtual spaces. This approach can take many forms. Some have regular conversations in groups, others one on one. Some focus on training teachers (often themselves), others on class-to-class connection. Some use synchronous video-conferencing, others continue rich conversations on social media platforms.

Based on a number of regular and one-off discussions, including organized training initiatives, that I’ve joined or led in the past few years, I’ve found online collaborations incredibly productive. They have allowed educators to join from work or home, to invite experts from around the world, to develop and share ideas without budget or approval or the need to show outcomes. They have created sandboxes (and often sandcastles) especially for young scholars to explore new ideas, and they often involved experienced scholars and institutional leaders. Some collaborations generated a lot of ideas but led to few actionable items—yet the ideas greatly influenced participants. And while some fizzled out, others continued for years, both seemingly adding up to a new trend.

The third group of people “involved” in emerging exchange practices are the inevitable leg-pullers. It would be unrealistic to overlook their presence and often effort: they often affect new initiatives quite significantly. Whether they’re driven by dogma or disdain, they can make the youngsters afraid, the outsiders ashamed, the active discouraged, and the ambitious doubt themselves. I could go on to list their awesome qualities—but let’s save space and time by just noting that one must know that they exist and should be actively ignored.

Let us now consider other alternatives and possibilities of educational exchange that could be adopted or developed. In place of the old and often empty MOU visits, universities and colleges could organize “immersion” programs where visitors arrange to stay at least a week at an overseas institution in order to observe people in action, to learn from personal interactions, and to reflect and plan what to bring and implement at home. The time for such immersion could be added either by asking host universities if they could arrange accommodation and guidance. If not, there may be expatriates in town who can host the visitors. And, of course, if the visitors are serious, they can add or allocate some resource for extending their visit and enriching the exchange.

Similarly, when inviting experts, our institutions could arrange “guided” consultancy rather than asking the guest to deliver their ideas without understanding the context. One may ask: what would a Nepali host need to teach a Japanese expert on mindful teaching or an American scholar on student-centered assessment methods? Simply, the experts can far better change the minds and habits of local teachers if the visitors know the size of our classrooms, the nature of our curriculum, and whether and how much course credit in the hands of our teachers.

Another approach—or, rather, a mindset—is to not expect exchange and collaboration to be everlasting, or else not done at all. Especially with virtual collaboration, the perfect need not be enemy of the good. Exchange projects should set short time and realistic goals, create resources for future use, and hand over initiatives to new groups. People want to learn and leave.

Class-to-class exchange—which are quite common but not very visible—could be adopted or supported by institutions. Teachers need some training, or connection to experienced colleagues, and some help with logistics.

Sending students abroad in exchange programs is an established method but it has become increasingly challenging due to increased marketization of international education in most countries. Scholarship to foreign students could be an alternative, and I wrote about it here when a regional university introduced the idea, but the project fizzled out for lack of seriousness.

I have seen more success at institutions that instead built relationship with individual scholars or groups of advocates from other countries. One such project, based in Sweden, has lasted nearly two decades and has helped hundreds of students complete secondary education. Sponsorship for college students is less common, perhaps because higher education is seen as a privilege. The exchange of students and their experience should be a priority in educational exchange.

International education used to be an exclusive domain for the elite. Then thousands of Nepali students started studying abroad, with their number maintaining 12th rank in the United States around 2014, a stunning fact for a country Nepal’s size. Strong arguments and emotions are associated with leaving home—especially when scholars don’t return—but education has always made people more mobile, and we might as well make the best out of mobility.

It is time for scholars and institutions to embrace the good strategies of internationalization and international exchange of education—and to stop unproductive old habits, as well as expose corrupt practices where they occur.

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