Culture as basis
When it came to choosing my HSC subjects, the then school mistress made it clear that if anyone wanted to get ahead of the game they should choose the Sciences or Economics. I chose all Humanities subjects, my passion lying in the human and cultural aspects of all experiences. The perception of the value of the Humanities has changed since the late 1980s. Internationally, research trends tend towards a mixed approach of the quantitative and qualitative even in some fields which had until recently been associated purely with ‘scientific’ methodologies. There is in Mauritius, as elsewhere, a growing awareness from various sectors that culture, which underpins everything we do, is not to be underestimated. The IOC conference of June 2013 in Mauritius drew attention to the potential that our national cultural resources and a policy of valorization of cultural patrimony are yet to play in driving the tourism industry. Sustainable development and commendable projects such as MID would themselves be unsustainable until we have developed a culture of ethical living underpinned by education, to cite just two examples.
Culture was very much at the forefront of my mind as I set off to China in 2007 to set up a Department of English Studies with the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the first joint venture university to obtain legal status as an independent campus in China. Aware of this context and of some of the connotations of ‘English Studies’, the last thing I wanted to do was to impose a canonical programme which might carry very little significance or relevance to the China campus. In a research paper ‘Refiguring English Studies in China’ (London, 2007) I started a reflection on the strategies that would allow us to deliver what we had promised, that is, the same degree programme that Nottingham UK does, while developing key elements that would create relevance and encourage Chinese students to drive the discipline into new directions through research.
Creativity and caveats
The creativity and expansion that the internationalisation of Higher Education affords are huge, as are the responsibilities of legal and regulatory frameworks, cultural and pedagogical challenges. As anecdote, I use an episode from the teaching of an MA module, Language and Gender, which explores the complex dynamics between communication and gender. One of my students’ response at the end of the course was that while the course had taken her onto an empowering and interesting journey in her reflections on how gender can be created, sustained and manipulated to different effects through communication, she could not see how she could apply the European paradigms with which we had worked to her cultural context. What was the point, she asked. I shelved the course temporarily. For this module, popular and successful in the UK, to have served our students in China, it would have had to be reinvented in collaboration with a colleague with a deeper applied and cultural knowledge and understanding of China than mine.
For sure, the internationalization of Higher Education is itself a catalyst that pushes further the boundaries of knowledge. I, for one, see British academia from a different perspective now, having left the comfort zone of British campuses to see it through an international lens. I am more aware of its weaknesses and the dangers of its establishment as a norm, while I remain a believer in constant transformation. Indeed, the ethical and pedagogical challenges in the internationalization of education are not to be underestimated. If I was not already convinced that teaching in Higher Education should be research-led for the obvious reason that the world of knowledge moves at such a fast pace, my experience in China as Head of Department and Director of a Research Centre highlighted another rationale. Teaching at this level can only be research-led because the internationalization of Higher Education, by virtue of moving into the unknown, requires new competence and skills to ensure an output of satisfactory learning outcomes.
To state the obvious, in the knowledge industry, more than in any other, it is important that revenue generation does not take precedence over the quality of education. We have seen recently too many cases where a lack of rigour and transparency in quality assurance, legal and regulatory frameworks have led to a ,devaluation of what internationalization itself means and implies, let alone to a loss of credibility in a nascent industry.
The potential for Mauritius
As Mauritius prepares to leapfrog, the internationalization of Higher Education has a significant role to play, not only in terms of developing key competences, through an engagement with local and global labour markets, and the needs of a knowledge economy, but in helping Mauritius prepare ahead. Ideally, the provision strategy of these Higher Education institutions would be defined in conversation with the National Development plan, with a long term strategy of international relations and in particular with the role we want to play in the region and especially on the African mainland.
And, to top it all, if we are able to develop the resources to create tailor made programmes – unique to the knowledge hub of Mauritius and that take into account the cultural foundations of all transactions – say, for Chinese students interested in doing business in Africa, then we have hit the jackpot as not just providers but as creators of applied knowledge and real world skills.
Before we get there though we need to be asking specific questions relating to learning outcomes. How can we make sure that Mauritian students and those we welcome here receive the right learning outcomes that makes them ready for a world that is increasingly interculturally and internationally connected? How can we make sure that the students receive the basic international knowledge and skills and enough intercultural literacy to operate successfully and creatively in the work market? How can we make sure that the international students we receive within legal, credible institutions receive the deliverables promised and are treated with the respect they deserve? How can we make sure that all students create and thrive in the intellectual cross fertilization from which novel ideas are born?
Are we as big as our dreams?
The challenges that China takes up in inviting international universities to not only set up and operate independently of Governmental interference but also to pilot reform in its Higher Education sector, even within the constraints of a one-party system, are not inconsequential. China realizes that one of the very means by which it has been able to impose a degree of uniformisation needs to give way to a high degree of critical thinking and creativity if it is to meet the economic challenges that lie ahead.
To come back to both Mauritius and my starting point of culture, one of the areas of challenge for senior management in one of the foreign university in Mauritius is the unexpected antagonism between Mauritian and mainland African students. In the case of a different proposal for the development of a new residential campus for Mauritian and international students there is resistance against the cultural exposure that this set up would provide. Here, a reluctance to see the positive trends may well be a stumbling block. Over and above the ideal economic, intellectual, entrepreneurial potential that wield international universities in Mauritius, wouldn’t an engagement in conversation with the other and the bigger world be precisely what we need in order to take us away from navel gazing and break down barriers of ignorance, let alone if we want to ensure our own economic survival as a not so powerful little island state? Are we prepared to be big enough – as human beings, as thinking beings, as strategists, visionary policy makers, pedagogues, researchers, trainers, administrators and leaders – to meet our dreams?
If culture is the ability to store, exchange and improve ideas then international universities are privileged places to accelerate the rate of innovation and increase global collaboration to create the futures we want. Beyond the role of knowledge providers, therefore, universities need to nourish creativity and curiosity to develop competencies and skills.
International universities by their very nature impact on the global and the local, the collective and the individual. They have the ability to produce integrated, macroscopic thinkers who would think through globally our ambitions of sustainable economic and human development, poverty reduction via the medium of the biggest, boldest technological possibilities without destroying the planet. They offer at the same time, by their hybrid nature and by forcing students out of their national (and other) comfort zones, a challenge for individual self-empowerment. Students empowered, for example, with tools for open expression will themselves put increasing pressure on undemocratic systems both locally and elsewhere.
In order to transform the rhetoric of dreams into reality, an obvious element which needs to be in place is a macro long term vision of where we want to be in 25 years, created through a dialogue across key stakeholders. Secondly, there needs to be an investment into research. Research bodies such as the Mauritius Research Council have yet to produce a critical mass of world class applied research, starting perhaps with collaborative projects with the international universities already in place in Mauritius. This research will, in turn, underpin the directions that Higher Education takes, allowing it to be a pillar for development.
Culture as basis