The comments were made by Oxford University’s refugee studies centre director Alexander Betts, who argued higher education could play a significant role in promoting globalisation and dispelling common misconceptions.
“[Refugees and migration] were two of the central issues within the Brexit vote in the UK,” Betts said.
“My immediate sense was we’d witnessed a turning point in politics in Europe”
“In the aftermath, my immediate sense was we’d witnessed a turning point in politics in Europe, where politics had become a clash over globalisation: people who embrace globalisation versus people who reject globalisation and are perhaps afraid of it.”
Betts told The PIE News that reconciling globalisation with democracy was key to its promotion, an approach he said was a revival of ideas from former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.
The higher education sector in particular, argued Betts, was in a strong place to adopt what he called “inclusive internationalisation”.
“[Higher education] needs to ensure that when it internationalises… it needs to find a way to extend the benefits to a deeper base of people to make it legitimate,” he said.
Doing so, he said, would create a “deeper democratic base to support the regulatory framework that enables internationalisation to take place.”
According to Betts, this could be achieved through a three-pillared approach: whole of society exchange programs, whereby international students engage with the wider community; lifelong civic education to provide the wider population with facts and information on certain topics such as immigration; and public engagement with research, so that research projects are seen to be of benefit to everyone.
“Internationalisation at home is absolutely crucial,” said international education consultant Elspeth Jones.
“If you look at the proportion of people who are able to study abroad, or work or volunteer abroad, it’s always a very small proportion of the population,” she added.
Jones said that despite the EU’s mobility target of 20% by 2020, 80% of the population still wouldn’t directly benefit from internationalisation through mobility, meaning other routes should be considered.
In particular, she called for a rethink to the way in which students are categorised, suggesting that separating out international and domestic students was “at our peril”.
In his opening plenary, Betts similarly argued that the higher education sector had been remiss in promoting the benefits of globalisation, inadvertently creating a “liberal internationalist, and often very privileged elite”, effectively alienating segments of society.
In one anecdote, he recounted that he had spent a total of four days of his life within the top 50 areas that voted for Brexit, urging delegates to similarly take into consideration how often they engaged with those outside their institution.
In developing horizontal bridges across countries, said Betts, higher education should also develop vertical bridges deep into societies and communities.
“Internationalisation at home is absolutely crucial”
Inclusivity was at the heart of the 2017 EAIE Conference, themed “A Mosaic of Cultures”. Final keynote speaker, writer and photographer Taiye Selasi, challenged the industry to consider itself and others as “multi-local”, citizens of multiple places rather than a singular country.
“This is a matter of revolutionising the way we see the world,” she said.
“The old way says: we come from countries, and just as ‘we’ come from these countries, ‘they’ come from these other countries,” she continued, arguing a divisional mentality lead to a lack of empathy towards others.
“It is ok if they are oppressed by their countries, or devastated by civil war, or left to die on the Mediterranean Sea, for they are not like us,” she said.
In an impassioned speech on the opportunity higher education has, Selasi concluded her speech with an affirmation of internationalisation, receiving a standing ovation from delegates.
“With all that’s going on in the world, does this really matter? Does the internationalisation of higher education really matter in the end? My answer to you, I say again: yes, absolutely, yes.”
The 2017 EAIE Conference saw a record 6,000 delegates from 95 countries convening in Seville to discuss international higher education. The 2018 conference will be held in Geneva.