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Equity in international education in the spotlight at Going Global APAC

Equitable access to mobility, new models of education partnerships and higher education as a societal good took centre stage at the Going Global Asia Pacific conference 2022 held in Singapore.

Going Global APAC ran from November 28 to December 1. Photo: British Council

In the APAC region, countries may be hesitant to sign UNESCO’s Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education

Executive director of think tank IISS-Asia, James Crabtree, warned about the “rise and stall” of globalisation and remarked that, despite Biden and Xi meeting during the G20 Summit, the underlying conditions of US-China relationship “are not good”.

Stakeholders began the conference with statements urging the UK sector to “get China ready” as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to limit travel to and from the country.

Crabtree pointed to the slowdown of “hyper globalisation”, which he said peaked at around the time of the global financial crisis 2007-08.

“It hasn’t collapsed, it’s sort of tapered off into a flatline,” he said. “We’re not globalising anymore in the way that we were in the high period…

“It’s quite easy to imagine some things that might happen that could prompt a much sharper form of decoupling. In this part of the world, we talk about decoupling, particularly with respect to China, but the Russia-Ukraine war should have showed us all exactly how quickly a process of disorderly decoupling can [result] in the event of military conflict.”

President of Imperial College London, Hugh Brady, noted the importance of higher education to engage politicians.

“The onus is on us to remind them of the benefits of internationalisation and global cooperation”

“The onus is on us to recognise the pressures that politicians are under and to redouble our efforts to engage with them and to remind them of the benefits of internationalisation and global cooperation at those various levels,” he said.

“[We need to] frame the debate in a way that [politicians] understand that there is a value or imperative of some level of engagement… If we believe in the principles of globalisation, internationalisation, partnership, now is the time we need to redouble it and not to back up.”

And despite geopolitical concerns, delegates at the conference identified ways in which equity in international higher education can be achieved.

UNESCO’s Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education, designed to enhance academic mobility globally and complement regional agreements such as the Lisbon Convention, Tokyo Convention, Addis Convention and Buenos Aires Convention, has been ratified by 18 countries, below the 20 needed for it to come into force.

“You can develop MoUs with other countries on the equivalency of qualifications among your countries,” said Libing Wang, chief of section for educational innovation and skills development at UNESCO APAC.

“The main difference is that this is a platform that UNESCO created for countries to sit together to agree on certain protocols and the values and principles.”

Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion, noted that the recognition of qualifications “turns out to be one of the things that takes most time”, everywhere the UK works.

“Anything like this that makes it easier in principle should be very, very welcome,” he said.

However, in the APAC region, countries may be hesitant to sign the document due to language disadvantages and the lack of a current regional “harmonisation process” on qualification recognition, N.V. Varghese, vice chancellor of India’s National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, noted.

Digital means of delivery were also focused on as a way to reach people unable to participate in international education opportunities for financial or geographical reasons.

“Digital is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic. There are issues of digital inclusion,” Maddalaine Ansell, director of education at British Council, said.

Access to digital transnational education often comes up in conversations Ansell has, she continued.

“That’s partly about finding a price point that means TNE can be offered to people beyond the elite who perhaps couldn’t afford the cost of travelling overseas to complete university education,” she explained.

“And typically, [other] issues are around quality assurance…

“How can you be really sure that the course delivered remotely, possibly to students who might be taking it in their second language, is really delivering the benefits that are hoped for?

“I think that’s a challenge that – working together – higher education institutions should really accept because of the potential benefits of doing a lot more TNE.”

There is also a “regulation lag” around governments accepting online and distance provisions, Leighton Ernsberger, British Council’s business director East Asia, added.

“[The sector should be] increasing exposure, working with the regulator, working with the government to expose, to innovate together.”

Along with digital, shortening the length of study abroad experiences overseas was also proposed to increase equity.

With around 8% of UK students joining outbound mobility, the Go International campaign missed its target of 13% outbound by 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The 8% number remains “just too small for UK HE”, deputy pro vice chancellor and associate vice president (International) at the University of Sussex, Richard Follett, posited.

“[Resurrecting the 13% target] must be our goal coming out of the pandemic,” he said. And the fact that wealthy and middle-class students are disproportionately represented among outbound student cohorts still needs to be addressed.

“Resurrecting the 13% target must be our goal coming out of the pandemic”

“Around 4.5% of students from a black and Asian background undertake a study abroad experience,” he said, adding that the international education strategy has the expansion of outbound mobility at the heart.

The Turing program offers 50% of its funding to underrepresented backgrounds, he reminded.

More widely, gender gaps across global higher education must be addressed.

The “leaky pipeline” in academia is not uncommon in many parts of the world, president of Singapore Management University, Lily Kong, highlighted.

“That pyramid that we are all so familiar with, with fewer and fewer women as we move further up the hierarchy, is absolutely the case in Singapore,” she told delegates.

The bonds that men build during their national service in Singapore, along with a “premium” given to STEM – a “male-dominated speciality” – can limit career progression, she said.

“In my own appraisal, I was told, ‘you’re really wonderful in so many ways, but you know what your weakness is? You’re not a STEM person’. A decision I took at 15 to go into social sciences made it so much more difficult swimming against the tide. I’m not a STEM person, I don’t have the networks.

“There is so much that needs to be done. First of all, attracting women into academia in the first place… Do we have women on selection panels? Do we have unconscious bias training? If and when we get women into academia, how can we support them in their work?” Kong asked.

Ansell also touched on equity in partnership as a key theme.

“Over the last decades, there’s been a trend of moving away from North-South partnerships, where the North is somehow in the lead or somehow gets an unfair share of the benefit of the partnership, to explore what a more equitable partnership might look like.

“There’s a lot of appetite from universities around the globe to find a way of being more equitable in education.”

Updated: on December 5, Iceland and Andorra ratified the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education.

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