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Policy & Practice

The wide gap between rhetoric and reality regarding international education

We need to move away from facile handwaving and towards a culture of evidence-based argumentation.

BY CRESO SÁ | AUG 03 2018

Discourse in the field of international education is dominated by an implicit overarching assumption that it is a force for goodness. Taken as a point of faith and never subjected to critical scrutiny, this assumption is the idée-force motivating cadres of professionals, researchers, service providers, and advocates to carry out their work as secular missionaries.

My argument is not anti-internationalist by any means. Of course, those of us who have been able to live, study, and work in different countries can often report on personal (and perhaps even public) benefits accrued from this experience. However, that is not an absolute and unavoidable truth. Canvassing large enough a sample, one would find that educational experiences in other countries can no doubt be negative or deflating, and contribute to a lower regard for the host culture or bad personal experiences; or yet they can be flat and non-descript, leaving the student absolutely unchanged. While this sort of variability in human experience is a given for social scientists, the field of international education is generally unwilling or perhaps unable to put assumptions aside and rigorously examine the outcomes of international education with a view towards informing policy and practice.

Much of what is published on the topic follows a style that can be described as descriptive advocacy. Practices, programs, and policy initiatives are documented, definitions are endlessly rehashed, “global trends” are tracked, and surveys are administered to trace obvious indicators; all to make the point that higher education institutions are (or should be) moving in the “right” direction and that more support is needed. Not unlike others, this community operates in a self-referential mode, aiming its contributions to the same researchers, practitioners, and policy advocates that share their professional interests and assumptions.

Problems arise when a case needs to be made more broadly to those who may not share those assumptions. Lacking a solid evidentiary basis upon which to build arguments, discussions of international education default to platitudes such as “the need for global citizens” and the imperative to “compete for global talent.” Notice how a global citizen is never defined in such debates, nor is there some clear stipulation of what contributes to educating one. Some will take a summer abroad experience in the United Kingdom as a valid milestone towards that, while others will take exception to that idea. Finally, the notion that countries are consistently competing for international students, taken as gospel, is not empirically sound as Emma Sabzalieva and I have demonstrated in recent research. Nonetheless, it is constantly trumpeted as a rhetorical device to marshal support for the cause.

This is well exemplified in recent attempts in Canada to generate policy recommendations for international education. Over the past four years, two international education strategies have been released in Canada: one by the Conservative federal government in 2014, and another earlier this year by the Ontario Liberal government. Both Canada’s International Education Strategy and the Ontario International Postsecondary Education Strategy 2018 entailed extensive consultations with stakeholders. The federal strategy was preceded by input gathering from 250 organizations, nearly 140 online submissions, and roundtables in six cities, while the Ontario consultation process took two years – yes, two years! One would think that such massive exercises would result in some insight or innovative ideas. In both cases, the effort-to-outcome ratio was remarkably unimpressive, as the strategies regurgitate the usual tropes about competition and “global” this or that – and put forward stock recommendations (e.g. we need a marketing strategy). Their faults as “strategies” have been well described elsewhere (here and here).

The late 2017 report Global Education for Canadians Equipping Young Canadians to Succeed at Home & Abroad does not spare us from conventional tropes either. According to the report, Canada is “falling behind” because it does not have a national strategy for outbound student mobility like our “closest partners and competitors,” and hence we are failing to teach Canadians “21st century workplace skills” through “global education.” Remarkably, the report defines global education as every activity involving a student affiliated with a Canadian college or university. So, in the report’s definition, a “bird course” taken as part of a study abroad program counts as global education, whereas a PhD pursued entirely abroad does not. Students or the needs of the labour market are not most central to the reasoning in this report; postsecondary institutions are. The oxymoronic quality of the argument is fascinating: global education is valuable as long as it is fundamentally rooted in Canada – and administered through Canadian institutions.

Rebooting the conversation about international education in Canada requires a shift in mindset and debate. The cost of not doing so is clear in our policy thinking in this field.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is the vice-dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. He is also the editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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  1. Alexander Lautensach / August 10, 2018 at 16:42

    This is a stimulating call for more and deeper thinking on the subject. I have two comments.
    The need to examine aims and learning outcomes of international education is illustrated by the fact that both famously gifted political leaders and ruthless dictators, both originating from and active in Third World countries, received university degrees in the ‘West’.
    The potential for educating global citizens in the best sense of the term is unmistakeable. It can literally prevent wars, if we get it right, which renders that task a moral imperative.

    Thank you!
    Alex Lautensach

  2. Mark Ashwill / August 30, 2018 at 17:32

    Related to global citizenship, there is an urgent need for an ongoing discussion of nationalism, especially in countries in which that ideology holds sway, e.g., the USA. It’s what I refer to as the elephant in the room (of the profession).


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