Thursday, June 18, 2015

Working in International Education - A Personal Note

I have been working in International Education for the last fifteen years. This has been an interesting journey as I have done various roles, right from teaching classes to establishing operations in different countries, selling courses as well as managing university partnerships. And, indeed, I was writing about this as I went along, using this blog as a scratchpad of ideas and records of interactions with people from different backgrounds and interests.

I am not sure I thought of this as a career path in any sort of meaningful way, but it somewhat became one. Some of the things I did was deliberate, others less so. In fact, if anything, I discovered that a career in International Education is quite different from what I perceived it to be. Or, that there is no career in International Education if one remained Indian, by appearance and at heart. International Education, in more ways than one, is about promoting courses from Developed countries in the Developing, and this requires a different approach, and I must add, appearance, to be successful there.

Instead, my idealistic impulses, shaped by my life experiences as a student in India and then as someone building education networks across the country (and then elsewhere in Asia), made me think that being in International Education is about combining the best ideas in education with the needs and realities of the countries like India in order to make peoples' lives better. This is indeed the rhetoric of International Education, but the reality is quite different. There is nothing about responsiveness to local needs and wants. In fact, the business of International Education often operates with the assumption that if one seeks international education, then the local options must have failed. So, it is indeed, at least mostly, neo-colonialism in the new garb, a tool for subjugation of the mind than anything else.

Matched with this are indeed the barriers various governments create in keeping education local! Though such restrictions are increasingly untenable because of the spread of online learning, education must be controlled as it is the well-spring of power. The local elite wants to control local education as this is both the justification and the goal of their power over local populace (I sometimes question whether the developing countries truly want to expand educational access) - and they want to keep away the International Elite entering their backyard. I became a first hand witness to this culture war.

From the tone of this post, one would perhaps see that I am rather disillusioned about the rhetoric of International Education. I have tried, in vein, to talk about the lessons that the global corporations have learnt over the last three decades about International Business - that the time for Corporate Imperialism is limited, that global is really multi-local, that the market at the bottom of the pyramid operates differently than other markets etc. However, Education is not an usual business - it is Culture business! And, regardless of what is being said, education is about power, privilege and peoples deep-seated assumptions about the hierarchy of relationships. Working in International Education, in whichever role, is about buying into, and reinforcing, these power relationships.

One may claim that the new, disruptive, technology-led initiatives (such as MOOCs) are all about democratizing (the American spelling is deliberate, as this is a very American word) education, but this is just another form of cultural domination, even more so because of the embedded technology. Technology is not value-neutral, but it carries the handiwork of its maker. When one organises the MOOCs in a certain format, and arranges a certain activities, it reflects a set of cultural assumptions and a certain way of doing things. That one may be talking about reaching out to a global clientele but unable or unwilling to discard, or at least examine, their own parochial assumptions, is a reflection how the business of International Education operates. No wonder if one listens to educators and students in Global South, which I get to do perhaps because of the mixed-up nature of my work, the limitation of this approach is clear. They are willing to eclectically draw upon the International Education buffet, but construct their own solutions - partly due to their reverse parochiality and partly because they see the designs quite clearly.

I am at that juncture in my career when I have started thinking about these issues deeply. I love what I do. I have come to see education of a certain kind as the route to emancipation, because, indeed, of my growing up experiences in India and my middle class background. I chose to live in Britain and went to study in different countries and institutions because I wanted to access global knowledge and culture. As with many other people from Global South, I learnt to embrace the values of enlightenment but reject its very Eurocentric view of the world. The hypocrisy of 'All Men Are Equal, but some are more equal than others' have become clearer to me because if this exposure, and through my work in International Education I came to see the contemporary application of that principle. 

For me, such realisations should not lead to the rejection of internationalism though. Parochialism of any kind, whether that is top-down cultural imperialism that I am complaining about or the rhetoric of local fiefdoms, work against emancipation of the disadvantaged and opportunity for social mobility and creation of more open societies. There is a job to be done in creation of a new kind of International Education, which is not about lusting for a certificate from a Western university but one built around global exchange of knowledge, understanding between different peoples, and openness towards diverse ideas and cultures while appreciating one's own. 

From that perspective, I know my work is somewhat misdirected. I love the writing and advocacy part of my work, and I guess I shall do it more as I go forward. However, I shall perhaps do less of the usual For-Profit work that I have done in the past, and do more work with local institutions promoting knowledge exchange and other projects that promote bottoms-up internationalisation rather than the other way around. My work in International Education would continue, perhaps in a different form, most probably in working with institutions in Global South to build a new approach to Internationalisation.

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