Friday, September 8, 2017

Internationalization and Engagement: How Foreign Students May be Reshaping What is Taught at Global Universities

The re-imaging of history and the ideology behind definitive narratives has been much in the news.  The Western taste for statue topping is merely an out sized manifestation of a more fundamental conversation going on about the nature of knowledge and its politics.  This is a particularly sensitive issue within the university.  Where once consensus about the ideology of narrative produced a robust set of assumptions and techniques for producing and disseminating knowledge, the current taste for pluralism and the politicization of knowledge as a valuable commodity of distinct communities has complicated both the production of knowledge and its dissemination in new ways.  In the absence of a new narrative orthodoxy, and for risk averse institutions--especially universities--that may mean assuming a passive position in the politics of knowledge. 

This instability now acquires transnational dimensions within globally committed universities, especially where they become dependent on the willingness of foreign students to matriculate and absorb their local curricula.  Indeed, the trend within global universities suggests that the traditional parochialism of universities--everywhere--may now be giving way to a more nuanced approach to knowledge narratives as foreign students become more influential participants in its construction. Universities with a global reputation may no longer be able to indulge mere naitonal conversaitons about the way that knowledge is understood and presented.  Increasingly, global universities will have to develop a more nuanced set of sensitivities to the way that knowledge is presented if they mean to keep and expand their stake in the business of global education. But that challenge affects not merely the way that "things" are taught to students (on the basis of the offense and clash of knowledge ideologies approaches). It will likely also affect the sort of societal censorship that shapes the scope within which academics feel safe in producing knowledge for the consumption of students (specifically) and society (in general to produce the data bits of reputation necessary to draw fee paying or high status students).  

More brutally put: if universities fail to provide students (and their parents) what they think they want to learn, and in the way they think they want to learn it, then the university will lose both market share and its reputational rank will be threatened as students (and their parents' money) go elsewhere. How is this equation affected where the students are foreign and the pressure comes from foreign states? This post considers the way these issues are now exploding on the academic scene in Australia. 

Most universities have yet to grapple with this issue of student participation and societal expectations respecting the way that "facts" are selected for presentation in an appropriate interpretive form. But Australian universities now appear at the forefront of the reshaping of the conversation about narrative.  A series of recent clashes between foreign (mainly Chinese) students and Australian universities about the way that knowledge is produced and interpreted (for the student in a way that is insulting to China) suggests the emerging contours of international student engagement in what had been local contests over the ideology of narrative and the presentation of knowledge (parochially in the United States about the presentation of civil war "heroes" and the character of "founders" especially those who were misogynists (virtually all of them) or slave holders (some of them) or racists and anti-Catholic individuals (collectively most of them)). 

A recent opinion piece suggested that there is a wide gap in tolerance for these culture wars between local contests for control of knowledge ideology and those that are projected in from another state. An Australian academic, Merriden Varrall (director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute) recently wrote an opinion essay which the New York Times chose to publish (itself an indicatror of elite thinking about narrative.  In "A Chinese Threat to Australian Openness" (New York Times, July 31, 2017;中国留学生威胁澳大利亚大学开放性 ), Merriden Varrall wrote:
Australians are increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence in the country. Chinese money is being funneled to politicians. Beijing-run media outlets buy ads in Australian newspapers to promote the Communist Party view on local and regional issues. Chinese companies are buying Australian farms and natural resources.

The push extends to Australia’s universities. Chinese agents are said to monitor Chinese students and report on those who fail to toe the Communist Party line. And in another troubling trend, many of the 150,000 visiting Chinese students are importing a pro-Beijing approach to the classroom that is stifling debate and openness.

In 2008-9 I taught international relations to undergraduates at a Chinese university in Beijing, giving me a window into Chinese students’ attitudes and behavior. I was struck by the tendency for students to align themselves with the government view.

I was not given any guidance or warnings about the topics I could cover in the classroom. But throughout the year, I was offered hints that my approach to teaching was inappropriate. Those warnings came not only from the administration but from the students themselves.
 Like academics in other places, Varrall wound up on thew wrong side of administrative discretionary decision making in the face of a refusal to conform to student expectations: "At my midyear review, I was told firmly by my department leadership that my approach of “trying to teach through rumor and hearsay” was unsuitable. When I refused to change my methods, I was told that I would not receive my bonus and that my contract would not be renewed." (Ibid.).  And for Varral, the root cause, which resonates in the rest of the West: "Universities have not adequately addressed this threat to debate and openness. Officials may be reluctant to take action because overseas students bring a lot of money to underfunded Australian universities."(Ibid.).

This is a story with resonance all over the West, of course.  But it lacks interest--for repetition--mainly because in most cases the protagonists are risk averse administrators, conflicted faculty organizations with some complicity arising from a variety of factors (sensitivity to markets, ideological alignment, fear, indifference, etc.), in risk aversion or student centering ideologies, and indigenous students. What makes this interesting is that foreign students--once viewed as passive contributors to university incomes with the expectation that they would absorb the education they were "fed" without complaint, are beginning to act just like native students--but to potentially vastly different ends. Yet it is hard to reconcile--except on nativist grounds--a toleration of native student engagement in the construction of their own education and of the ideology they wish to be fed and an intolerance for this behavior when it originates in non-native students.

And yet the fear, in the case of foreign students, is not that these students bring their ideological preconceptions and tastes with them--and have the money to transform these predilections into university approaches to education--but that they serve as instruments of foreign states. A recent article from Australia drives home the point (Gwen , "Why Australian universities have upset Chinese students," BBC News Online (5 Set. 2017)).
In four prominent cases in recent months, Chinese students at Australian universities have complained about teaching materials being incorrect or insulting to China.

The incidents have gained increasing attention in both nations, especially in the media, and forced apologies or statements from the universities.
The four episodes that have drawn attention ran from the sublime to the ridiculous. In one case a faculty member caused consternation by references to Taiwan as a country--a position unequivocally rejected by China as a core part of its policy and governing ideology, but not necessarily by other states in the same way. 
Three other incidents have also caused controversy in recent months:
--Last month, a lecturer at the University of Sydney was criticised for displaying a map that showed Chinese-claimed territory as part of India. The lecturer later issued an apology, saying he had inadvertently used an outdated map from the internet.
--Earlier in August, an Australian National University academic apologised after writing a warning - in both English and Chinese - to students about cheating. Chinese media reported that the warning had been interpreted as unfairly targeting Chinese students.
--In May, Monash University suspended a lecturer over a test question which suggested that Chinese officials told the truth only when "drunk or careless". ("Why Australian universities have upset Chinese students,")
Where the  episodes take a curious turn was when the universities involves sought counsel from the representatives of foreign states in Australia. "The Australian newspaper quoted a University of Newcastle spokeswoman as saying the university had engaged with "a range of interested stakeholders" over its incident, including the office of the Chinese consulate-general in Sydney."(Ibid).  Such action, of course would be both scandalous and illegal were they to occur in China--or many other states.  The reporting also suggested some attention from Australian academics, but predictably a more risk averse reaction from administrators whose budgets are effectively controlled by the rate of foreign tuition payers. And, of course, the report sought to conflate these activities with what it described as a number of anti-foreign incidents at Australian universities. The most valuable insight was practical: "Sow Keat Tok, deputy director of the University of Melbourne's centre for contemporary Chinese studies, said that given the number of Chinese students studying in Australia, more incidents were likely." (Ibid.).

So what does this mean? To some extent the incidents and their after effects might be overblown.  Students have effectively been in control of curriculum to a greater extent for some time.  Influence follows money, and student choice, as well as student complaints have a greater influence for its effect on the present value of short and medium term aggregate revenue for cash starved universities (effectively abandoned by parsimonious governments) than for its qualitative effects. Students, including foreign students, ought to continue to assert whatever power has been ceded to them in the market for university education--including the power to determine what is taught them and how.  While at the end students might well suffer--it is odd for those who know better to engage in the farce of seeking knowledge from those from whom they merely demand a pre determined performance.  But that is a choice that can be affirmed or quashed by markets--in this case the wage labor markets into which students are projected. So far, those markets are indifferent so money wins.

On the other hand, I agree with the Chinese position that the content of education is inherently political--and the essence of national sovereignty is full control over the scope and content of the knowledge conveyed to students (e.g., here). And indeed, with respect to its own control of its own educational institutions, some of the actions taken might be viewed as deeply offense to the West and Western sensibilities (e.g., here).  But that is fair--in China. China, like Australia or any other states for that matter,  has no business challenging the sovereignty of Australian educational institutions by directly interfering in their business. They are free to protest to their heart's content--and to forbid their students from study in Australia--those are the prerogatives of sovereigns.  But their own Communist Party Basic Line forbids the sort of unequal and disrespectful treatment suggested in the reports, even as the respect for China's sovereign prerogatives ought to give Western states pause when they seek to project their own sensibilities within Chinese universities (e.g., here, and here). All states are free to react as sovereigns to the internal decisions of others, by controlling their own citizens to the extent of their own constitutional and human rights traditions.

In that context it makes sense to view university consultations with foreign powers about the content of their own academic programs to be highly suspect. And foreign powers have every right to tend to the welfare of their citizens abroad--acts of bullying and other threats to the physical well being of their students are matters of high priority.  But in matters of the mind, it is clear that foreign powers have substantially constrained choices.  They are well aware of what is being taught elsewhere and can control the places where their students attend (to the extent that such power is consistent with their own political cultures, and with the understanding that this may generate political consequences at home). Likewise students--local or foreign are entitled to engage in matters of the mind as independent agents. They are free to criticize the nature and content of their education to the extent that the university and the political culture of the place permit. Where challenge is inevitable than states must adhere to the norms of international relations. Thus there is a problem of sovereign respect where a home state seeks direct intervention in the educational policy of a host state. But there is less of a problem, for example, when Australia and China engage in state to state discussions that may touch on education, and that produce policy--to the extent that such policy is consistent with the constitutional traditions of each state.

But this is not just a "China" issue.  The issue of the extent t which foreigners may seek to engage in academic discourse within the parameters permitted national students requires some substantial thought--which has not even remotely been attempted.  It is not enough, in the West at least, to resolve the issues raised by conceding authority to the calculus of administrators, whose balancing may weigh factors in ways different from those of faculty--or the polity as a whole. At the same time, foreign direct intervention in the educational life of a host state might well have to be treated like other forms of direct foreign investment by a foreign state entity--requiring application, review and approval under the administrative rules of the host state.  It will be interesting to see how U.S. and European universities begin to resolve these issues as they too are confronted by a diverse group of foreign students--and the states form which they come, in the already complicated discourse about  the ideology of knowledge, its construction and dissemination within the structures of global post secondary education institutions.   

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