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  • Santiago Castiello

A Critical Discussion Regarding International Higher Education Research

Earlier this month I had the privilege of participating with some amazing scholars at the Council for International Higher Education (CIHE) Presidential Panel during the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) annual meeting in Tampa Bay, Florida. The name of the session was “A Critical Discussion Regarding International Higher Education Research”.


This panel discussion was designed to elicit a candid conversation regarding the role CIHE/ASHE has in supporting international scholars. The validation of international scholarship is often compared to Western epistemologies and ontological perspectives; thus, we wanted to discuss the importance and relevance of re-centering our work within a true international/glocal context. Furthermore, due to diminishing participation from international scholars within and outside the United States attending both the CIHE pre-conference and ASHE general conference, we wanted to discuss ways to increase CIHE participation and engagement. The idea for the panel was to analyze these topics from the perspective of a senior and tenured faculty (Dr. Amy Scott Metcalfe – University of British Columbia), of an entry level tenure-track faculty (Dr. Christina Yao – University of Nebraska, Lincoln), and of a graduate student (myself – University of Arizona). The panel was moderated by Dr. Hugo García from Texas Tech University and CIHE's incoming chair.


In the lines below, I would like to share some brief ideas that were part of my remarks in hopes of fueling a discussion about our role in this re-centering of our work and in the much-needed critical approach towards the study of internationalization.


1.      From the perspective of a graduate student, what does it mean to be woke in the academe as scholars of international higher education.


To me, being woke in international higher education means that we are aware of the paradigms and assumptions in which our current mainstream understanding (or misunderstanding) of internationalization is based upon.


The playing field for most universities is now the global landscape. A landscape that comes with heavy baggage including centuries of privilege reproduction resulting in global power disparities. So, being woke means that we acknowledge the past and present colonial influences that run so deep that they even affect our understanding of what do we consider to be national or international.

  • The nation-state as a container to delimit our unit of analysis is problematic, we need to rethink those boundaries based on a colonial standpoint.

  • For example, I am an “international student” I come from Mexico, a land which was colonized by Spain. I now live in the United States, in Tucson Arizona, a land that used to be part of Mexico until 1854. But even before all of that, the land where the University of Arizona resides belonged to the Tohono O’odham Nation. So, who is ‘international’ and who is ‘domestic’ in Tucson?

  • Besides, our contemporary geographical boundaries are leaving people out: Refugees, asylees, unauthorized immigrants (including DACA students), Jay Treaty students, etc. are pushed by our own systems to the point that they might feel they are neither domestic nor international.

Being woke means to move beyond the duality of us/them, domestic/international, to move towards an ampler definition.


  • As scholars of “international higher education”, we are still scholars of higher education, so why can’t we learn from other lines of research such as the amazing work being done on trans* studies? Are we ready to move from an INTER-national to a TRANS-national approach? Are we prepared to acknowledge that people and institutions don’t have to be either/or and that they can’t be pushed-out anymore to being neither/nor?


2.      According to the previous definitions, and again from the perspective of a graduate student, in what ways is international higher education woke? What is missing?


I will start with the missing part. First are the ways in which we refer to internationalization, how we define it, what do we consider to be the relevant activities around international education, and therefore, the decisions we make about the what, where and how to research.


Let’s just take as an example our own Council for International Education (CIHE) call for proposals for this conference. When I first read it, I remember that I was excited to see that we were going to be discussing some critical issues of international higher education and our role as “woke scholars”. I even submitted a couple of proposals. However, when I re-read the call to prepare for this panel I realized that I had missed some troubling wording in the description. When the call for proposals contextualizes the importance of internationalization within Higher Education, the kind of examples given about the activities universities around the world are engaged in, are problematic. Such examples include “cross-border partnerships through branch campuses, recruitment of international students and faculty, the exporting of educational services and degrees programs, global course delivery”.


  • Words like recruitment, exporting, course delivery, branch campus… those are very narrow interpretations of the activities around internationalization. Those are centered on the limited Anglo-American model of internationalization. They represent a US-centered perspective of what internationalization is.

  • This perspective is problematic since it talks about internationalization being unidirectional. It mentions the exporting part without acknowledging that on the other end there is someone “importing” those “educational services and degrees”. It talks about the recruiting of international students from abroad without acknowledging the consequences of brain-drain where the 'recruitment' takes place. The idea of opening branch campuses to bring education to a different country is dangerously close to a neo-colonizing approach through education as opposed to international collaboration.


Another example of the pervasiveness of a narrow-centered view of internationalization is the sensationalists titles of many op-ed’s around international higher education. When distinguished scholars declare in highly read outlets that “internationalization is either finish or at least on life support”, or when we talk about the crisis and problems with “decreasing student mobility” we are actually referring to shifting tides in the flow of international cooperation. But yet, we generalize those issues. There are also scholars who have rebuked by saying that there is no crisis in international education but rather that “the only obstacle is sitting in the Oval Office”. Aside from the naïveté of the idea that the current turbulent times will end with a change on the U.S. Presidency, these types of statements are problematic since they keep placing the West (in this case the U.S.) both in the center of the issue and in control of the solution.


Again, just by reading our own Council’s call for proposal we can find other dangerous assumptions that reflect that we still have a long way to go before we can to start embracing a more inclusive approach towards internationalization: “At the heart of international higher education is the creation of a democratic society, which includes celebrating diverse cultures and languages, cultivating global perspectives, and enhancing capacity development and peace-building among nations.”


  • Internationalization has been used as tool for soft power for far too long. We should not let it be a force to push a certain set of values.

  • Regarding the idea that at the heart of international education there is enhancing capacity development, we really need to move beyond that:

Internationalization is not aid! International cooperation is not charity or assistentialism!

So, to be woke as international higher education scholars we need to have a different dialogue… One that begins with de-constructing and de-westernizing internationalization, and that looks to rebuild it from a more solid and humanizing foundation.


3.      From what was stated about what is missing, what can we, as graduate students, do to become woke?


As students, we can start by expanding our research toolbox. Let’s start by analyzing with a critical lens, the frameworks and methods we are using for our research. What are the assumptions behind those frameworks? Who do they include? Who’s absent? Which paradigms informed the development of such frameworks?


When designing our research, for example for our dissertations, we become our prime instrument. As such, we bear a responsibility to check our biases, to unlearn whatever paradigms are necessary.


For those of us who are studying internationalization of higher education from the inside of this Westernized and U.S.-Centric space, the challenge might be harder. In some cases, we might even have to challenge our own professors, our committee-members, our mentors.


We can also start by getting more involved in discussion groups (like The Critical Internationalization Studies Network), scholarly organizations (such as the national organizations adhered to the World Council of Comparative Education Societies), and even practitioner-oriented organizations where a critical lens seems to be most-needed.


Please share your thoughts in the comments section below and let's start a conversation about these ideas!

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