Three waves of international education: political, political economy, politicisation

International education (IE) is an old idea – a phenomenon that emerged in the 19th century to today. I argued in my book that the evolution of IE has shifted from government to institutions as provider of IE, but the intention for IE has always been political and political economy underpinned by sovereign or institutional interests and power.

Broadly speaking, IE can be seen in three waves.

The first wave

This wave lasts from late 19th century to last decade of the 20th century, where states plays the central role in IE. In 1851, nation states began to see the idea of education beyond sovereign boundaries, which led to the World Fairs in London, an international congress on education in Paris, and the first international school system in Europe.

Japan followed in 1868 as part of the Meiji restoration that saw education from international resources to promote the welfare of the Empire.

In 1893, the USA hosted the Columbian Exposition in Chicago that included a significant gathering of international educators from many countries in Europe, Australia, Chile and Uruguay. This was followed by an explosion of business and professional groups operating with international connections and the rise of international schools across the world.

From 1920s through the 1950s, various international organisations backed by nation states were created to research and promote the idea of education for human development, for example the World Federation of Education (WFE) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Although these movements were based on political rationale of the states, there were nationalist sentiment as well as removing national prejudices. What is common is the idea of education for a “common humanity” and the heart of training scholars for international understanding and internationally minded person with an international outlook was at the core.

In the first period after World War II, IE leaned towards education at the tertiary level and furthered the political rationale of nation states in the context of global conflicts. IE was championed by states on humanitarian aims of improving people’s understanding of each other to achieve peace and for developed countries to gain solidarity with developing countries.

The Australian Colombo program is one example. Born out of the 1950 Commonwealth Meeting on Foreign Affairs, the Colombo Plan sought to train overseas students in Australia as part of Australia’s Technical Co-Operation Scheme. Its deeper political ambitions were aligned with Australia’s geopolitical contexts, particularly Australia’s role in the US alliance whose main concerns at that time were containing the two communist powers China and the Soviet Union.

It was also a tool for other diplomatic negotiations about trade and to raise Australia’s reputation in the South East Asian region, particularly to demonstrate absence of racial discrimination in Australia’s foreign policies to counter regional and international reactions against policies like White Australia Policy in 1967.

Colombo scholarships were awarded based on Australia’s foreign policy interest, for example, Indonesian students under the goodwill mission of Indonesia to Australia in negotiation for economic trades with Indonesia.

Another objective was to train public servants and educated electorate of countries of the new independent States in the Asian region and further African States, assuming these trained officials can enable political democracy in their countries.

The second wave

The second wave begins in the 1980s through to the early 21st century. This wave marked the shift of strategic thinking and transformation at the institutional level from the government level.

In Europe, embedded exchange and mobility programme began with the European Commission’s pilot of the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) in 1981.

The Bologna declaration in 1999 by European Ministers of Education furthered the notion of openness across borders to allow students to access mobility. Universities became competitive in offering IE.

As with the first wave, Australia followed the world trend, and along with globalisation and pursuit of institutional competition, Australian universities became strong players in the IE industry. For Australia, IE shifted from political tools of the state to economic tools of universities partly to improve reduced public funding. Market forces in international education and ranking of universities on a global scale has seen a focus on marketisation, competition and management of student mobility and provider mobility. Many universities now have off shore campus and translation educational programs in addition to recruiting international students their campus in host countries.

IE has shifted from political rationale for the state to political economy of universities. Delivery of IE is now part of every university’s strategic plan as internationalisation strategy. IE is now seen as a market-based commodity to prop up the ranking and financial position of universities – an idea that falls far from the values of IE for understanding and world citizenship in the early days of its evolution.

It should be noted that the commodification of IE is not a one way process. Treating it as a market exchange, IE is also seen in terms of supply and demand. While universities are increasing their supply of IE, the demand for IE by international students, families and their governments is also increasing, albeit each of these stakeholders have very different motivations to enter the market. What is common is the idea of “knowledge economy” that justify pursuit of IE, where the outcome of IE is about improving human capital for labour market of developing countries that are in the process of industrialisation. Interesting, none of the stakeholders including universities seem to be very interested in researching whether such outcomes actually eventuate.

The third wave

Since the beginning of the 21st century, some emerging economies, for example China, Malaysia, Thailand, even Vietnam, are entering the IE market. Some of these countries pursue IE to raise the profile of their cultural heritage on the global stage as a form of ‘soft power’, for example, China has offered free classes in different parts of the world to teach Mandarin or Chinese languages to anyone who wants them especially planning business opportunities in the country. Confucian institutes located in many universities across the world is another example. In these cases, the assumption for IE in the Asian region is a form of cultural rationale to be gained from student exchange programmes or intra-institutional cultural activities for transcontinental influence.

Is this rationale different to the ERASMUS and Bologna movement in the first wave where one could argue that policy contexts of these large-scale policy developments reflected the Commission’s mission to firmly constitute and reconstitute higher education as a European policy domain?

The reaction to this phenomenon, particularly the rise of the Chinese (both the state and the students) in IE, suggest that there is a difference.

In Australia, there is a view that the Chinese doing IE with intentions contrary to Australian universities who do IE, in that the former emphasises institutional identities with nationalist ideologies, whereas the latter respond to economic imperatives and institutional ranking.

This wave is different to the others in the media’s serious role in debating about the deliberation of IE. For example, Four Corners ran a story on Australian universities viewing international students as cash cows by lowering admission and assessment standards for international students and make billions of dollars. Unsurprising, many IE providers reacted negatively against such framing. This story also led to an academic, who spoke up about admission standards of Murdoch University, being termed whistle-blower and sued by Murdoch University (MU) for their subsequent drop of international students. This then led to public campaign for MU to remove the lawsuit and uphold freedom of speech.

There’s also the story reported in mainstream media including the ABC, SBS, SMH, the Australian, that drew on Salvatones Babone’s (who is an academic working at Sydney University) opinion piece about the China student boom and risks it poses to Australian universities. This story also received many backlash from academics in the IE sector on issues of framing IE.

Most recently, Foreign Correspondent reported on an investigation by the government into foreign interference in Australian universities. The claims of this piece include cybersecurity referring to massive data hack at the ANU and China suspected to be behind the hack; theft of research and intellectual property referring to Australian universities receive extra support to curb foreign interference in their institutions and research projects; campus security referring to confrontations between students who clashed views on China and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong at the University of Queensland.

These stories told through the media have a common base of contention. Australian universities are too reliant on international students and are not doing enough to combat China’s influence. They are at risk of being complacent about the threats that they face, suggesting that countries – China – that send students or engage in international collaboration is looking at IE as a way to acquire knowledge, skills and intellectual property and use these acquired resources for their nationalistic mission rather than for the greater global good or for the good of Australia.

So, it seems that the concern is about political rationale of IE, to be specific, China’s political ambitions for sending students to Australia, or engaging with researchers in Australia.

But has political rationale, or political economy rationale, always been the intention for Australia and Australian universities, as with the Europe and North America, to engage in IE as seen in the first two waves? What is different here?

Perhaps it’s because the media has caught on to the game.

Or is it that the Australian media, or we as a society, have a problem with who can have the power in enacting the political intention behind IE. Do we have a problem with our universities selling education to further Australia’s means or do we have a problem with countries buying our education so that they can further their own means?

Perhaps there are simply too many people in the game now, all with different stakes in the game and different ways of maintaining their stakes by advancing some ideologies about IE.

Whatever it is, IE has indeed entered the third wave – politicisation – and everybody has something to say or something to protect.

The first two waves are extracted from chapter 2 International Education: A Potential for Ethical Development of my book on international graduates returning to Vietnam


International education as a public good

Vietnam has been a significant source country for international students in the last 30 years, and there is no sign of this trend changing in the near future.

Such growth aligns with the country’s economic development since the 1990s when Vietnam transitioned to a market-based economy with strategic efforts in entering the global economy. This is certainly seen at the national level with government and bilateral scholarships as a key element in the internationalisation of higher education policy.

The growth in Vietnamese students studying abroad also reflects a societal aspiration for Western education that has deep historical roots of colonial days. It would not be inaccurate to say that every Vietnamese family wish to send their children to study in the US, France or Australia.

What does this mean in terms of social equity for Vietnam?

First, studying overseas is expensive. In my research about Vietnamese international graduates, the majority of scholarship recipients was from high socioeconomic backgrounds while those that self-financed were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This may suggest that the provision of scholarship by the Vietnamese government, bilateral agencies, and host universities amplify the “meritocracy” notion that reproduces the privileged class by giving them access to international experiences.

In a society that is undergoing dramatic economic change and increasing level of economic inequality, international education carries equity and social justice agendas from the wider society through unequal access.

Second, if acquired international education results in differentiating local-trained graduates from international graduates that advantage the latter over the former in terms of entering the jobs market and income, then it entrenches economic disparity that produce advantage in the first place. In a high-network society like Vietnam, where material is linked with social status, this would further marginalise those that are left outside the (local or international) education system.

My research also found that the majority of graduates participated passively in community work for public benefits citing economic betterment as the main benefit of international education. While this finding is not generalisable, it highlights the moral problem of the effects of international education.

If one sides with education as a private good, then one may accept the idea of education to benefit the individual.

The equity issue, though, is about “who pays and who benefits” in sending students abroad. If students are sent overseas to study on public funds through government scholarships, a return on this public investment ought to be students’ contribution to society for the benefits of society not only for themselves.

It is not possible to separate the contribution of international education to society if the selection of students carries social inequity of the wider society, and if these students are not willing or able to contribute to public benefits and improve a fair and just society.

The moral problem of equity can be addressed by shifting the international educational paradigm as a private good to a public good. A public good is when society is seen as the final beneficiary of education while the student is the target beneficiary. The public good concept originates from the political economy contexts where human capital is the goal of education. Given that international education is in part a response to Vietnam’s economic transition, as Singapore, Japan once were, this theoretical underpinning of public good has some appeals.

However, in the context of capitalist-developing economy, there are overlapping issues of access to and effects of international education in terms of social equity. The notion of education for human capital therefore needs to go much further.

Creating pathways for international graduates to participate in community development or service learning can be some ways to balance private interest position and public benevolence. Civic opportunities need not be seen as binary to career development. They can be embedded in internship or experiential learning programs in the home countries while abroad or upon returning home.  

Some of these initiatives are already part of the learning model in some Australian universities where students take internship in developing country in NGOs or community-based organisations. Leveraging these programs and the networks society in Vietnam to cultivate citizenship could be the key to sustainability in Vietnam’s development.

If you are an international student or graduate engaging in community development in your home or host country, I would love to hear your story. Please connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Email.


International education and development of citizenship and social responsibility

The benefits of education lie not only in economic betterment for the individual. It is also in developing students’ capacity to be informed and enable positive change in their societies.

In that way, education can contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The same can be argued for international education. Those who are lucky enough to experience studying abroad could bring their acquired knowledge, skills, and personal development to make a positive civic contribution to society.

This is the objective of SDG 4: Target 4.7, Citizenship education for sustainable development.

The reality for many international graduates returning to Vietnam looks sketchy although hopeful in this aspect.

One of the key findings in my research about Vietnamese international graduates’ citizenship and social responsibility was that graduates felt a heightened sense of ‘civic self’ and citizenship brought about by their changed conception of ‘community’.

Living overseas allowed them to experience different government systems and community structures, which extended their idea of community beyond the Vietnamese traditional extended family and kinship lines.

Social responsibility became important, and with that, perceptions of opportunities for social change and confidence to take up some of these opportunities.

These graduates took part in a range of civic activities, from humanitarian to community services. Their aspirations to contribute to social development were varied. The international experience was often highlighted by graduates as informing them of the value of building human capacity, which was contrary to the Vietnamese culture of short-term welfare and gifts.

More strategic rationales, such as to cultivate networks for career prospects, were also evident at times, particularly in some graduates’ desire to engage with international NGOs. The Vietnamese priority attached to personal relations and trust emerged as a counterpoint to the more formal structures of these same international NGOs, which explained many graduates’ preference for informal networks.

It was also within these networks, which were an extension of families and friends, that the returnees found their shared values and opportunities to do ‘good’ for the community.

They perceived the potential for change to come about in non-systemic ways, even unintentional ways, or as a result of their interaction with existing political institutions and community groups.

One of the great insights was the graduates’ commitment to long-term community work, which was mainly driven by the values of community work itself, rather than achieved outcomes or a perception of possibilities for social change.

This may explain why many felt that benefits of international education are somewhat limited in the area of social development such as health, social welfare, poverty and underprivileged groups, democracy and human rights.

Nevertheless, there is a sense of social responsibility and perceived opportunities for social change even if opportunities are not always taken up.

This sense of citizenship should be the motivation for undertaking and reaping benefits of international education.

This post is extracted from my recent commentary piece in the University World News entitled “Improving the contribution of returning students to SDGs“.