Global Competition 2.0

This is a guest post by Laura M. Portnoi, the interim associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Education at California State University–Long Beach, and Sylvia S. Bagley, director of teacher leadership in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Portnoi and Bagley’s coedited essay collection (with Val D. Rust) on global competition was published in paperback in 2013, and their coedited issue of New Directions for Higher Education on the same topic was published in December 2014.

Note to readers: We wrote this blog post a few days before the ISIS-led attacks in Lebanon and Paris. As our world continues to face multifaceted crises, we remain hopeful about our collective ability–in part through education–to transcend deep differences while maintaining diversity, sustainability, and peace. Our biggest challenges as a human species continue to be both locally specific and globally impactful.

UW President shakes hands with Tsinghua University Chairperson after signing an agreement creating a dual degree program. Photo by Dan Schlatter

UW President shakes hands with Tsinghua University Chairperson after signing an agreement creating a dual degree program. Photo by Dan Schlatter

Since the publication of our article, “The AAUP’s Role in a Globalized, Competitive Higher Education Landscape,” in the November-December issue of Academe, initiatives to leverage nations’ positioning have continued to dominate the policy terrain. The era we refer to as “Global Competition 2.0” places a heightened emphasis on rankings and world-class status, infusing a strong market ideology into higher education rhetoric.

Entrepreneurship is increasingly part of this market-driven trend. For example, paralleling the topic of our article in Academe, China recently announced its “World Class 2.0” initiative, intending to build upon its previous commitment to funding top-tier institutions by boosting the number of entrepreneurship courses available and promoting internationalization through the development of international hubs. Indeed, just this week, the University of Washington (home base for one of us) released a statement announcing its partnership with China’s Tsinghua University to launch a dual degree program, funded in part by Microsoft, designed to “fuel innovation and foster collaborations on a worldwide scale.” Global competition buzzwords abound in the announcement of this collaboration, which focuses on “developing entrepreneurial skills” and preparing “students to succeed and make meaningful contributions in a 21st century global economy.”

Entrepreneurship initiatives within higher education are flourishing in other parts of the globe as well, albeit with different proximal goals. South Africa, for instance, is focusing on teaching entrepreneurship to students in an attempt to address systemic unemployment, with market language infused into its transformative philosophy of education. As one vice chancellor has noted, “We [universities] are businesses that sell a highly perishable commodity – knowledge. As the economy changes, or the context changes, so too must content of curricula and the learning experiences of students, in order for them to meaningfully contribute to socio-economic development.”

Yet, as we suggest in our article, the global higher education landscape remains as diverse as ever, and local priorities continue to trump the desire to be globally competitive in many cases. From issues of severe and immediate national crisis—such as Syria’s university students seeking refuge and schooling in neighboring countries—to Zimbabwe’s legislative attempts at creating greater gender balance in university council administrative placements, it is clear that global positioning exists alongside more localized priorities and policies. In the United States, concerns related to institutional racism, guns on campus, college athletics, academic freedom, and sustainability dominate media attention, though there is continual discussion of maintaining our global competitive edge through, for instance, increasing the effectiveness of internationalization practices.

Many endeavors to address local priorities are occurring through grassroots efforts, both in the United States and further afield. Most of us are well aware of the recent resignation of the University of Missouri’s president, spurred on by a graduate student’s hunger strike and the predominately African-American football players who threatened to boycott upcoming games unless he stepped down due to racial tensions on campus. Fewer may know of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014, in which students protested what they perceived as China’s involvement in pushing a pro-Communist curriculum into Hong Kong schools. In other cases, localized efforts are explicitly embedded in policy itself. The United Kingdom, for instance, recently announced its intention to balance market-driven initiatives through the creation of an Office for Students, which—according to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills’ Green Paper entitled Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice—will continue to seek “wider participation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds” and “protect the institutional autonomy and academic freedom that has underpinned the success of English higher education.”

We support these efforts, and return to our belief in the ongoing need to mediate aspirations for global competition through local forces and priorities. We must always keep both local and broader humanitarian goals in mind when discussing the future of higher education. Along these lines, the president of the International Association of Universities (IAU), Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, has spoken openly about the need for higher education institutions to focus on sustainable development across the globe. In a recent interview, he posited that “the focus is still very much on the Western university and the way they promote themselves with rankings, saying they are the best…. They are the best, but perhaps only on one point but not on the point of sustainability. When we talk about world-class we need to ask ‘whose world?’ And how do you define “world”? If it is about a sustainable world then I think we need to come up with different criteria altogether” (University World News: Asia Hub, October 23, 2015). Reframing the debate around world-class institutions and other market-driven global competition initiatives should be a key focus of higher education in the United States and beyond.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.

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