International higher education must reject neocolonialism

Nothing stays the same. Some researchers see international higher education as a freeze-frame picture, susceptible to linear measures and predictions. I see an open Heraclitan ontology in which higher education and its settings are always changing, always becoming, ultimately in non-linear fashion. Now the future seems more open, and more troubled.

Post-1945 higher education, framed by the United States as senior partner and Europe as junior partner, is giving way to greater complexity. Worldwide power is pluralising. Differences between countries, and civilisations or ‘traditions’, are more insistent. This is the certainty in uncertainty. The inevitability of difference.

This is not a bad thing because it begins to free up the world, multiplying our vision and practice. It is difficult for Western nations and universities to share power, but global differences were always there. What has changed is that the difference is now obvious and demands that we rethink the global order.

This is happening at a challenging time. Certain cshallenges arise where the pluralisation of power meets unilateral national interest. Consider geo-political tensions. A rogue Russian state is devastating higher education in Ukraine and Russia. A US government determined to maintain global supremacy is transforming American engagement with China from mutual cooperation to mutual strategic threat and the decoupling of technology. The decoupling of economies and higher education may follow.

China talks of a shared future. As Henry Kissinger remarked to The Economist recently, nothing in China’s tradition suggests a desire for world domination. But China wants respect for its civilisation and world role. It wants unchallengeable sovereignty and to shred the century of humiliation. It wants authority on its borders and in its region.

This is incompatible with US hegemony, especially in Asia. Meanwhile, other nations and higher education are dragged into the vortex.

Cross-border academic mobility is under pressure. Research collaboration is being over-determined by national security. AI and machine learning generate a shared set of problems but could become tools of geopolitical rivalry.

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