Colleges and Collegiality-An International Imperative

The concept of globalization pulsates throughout just about every discussion or article on international relations, the macro-economy or worldwide social predicaments. The only reason the word hasn’t become hackneyed is that its meaning is germane to everything of significance that is happening to our world in this millennium.

We experience the various forces of globalization at different paces and perceive them in different timeframes. Corporate multinationals have been with us for decades and the worldwide saturation of popular media, television and advertising has long been the norm as well. More recently, the instantaneous transformation of knowledge sharing and of working practice was the immediate offspring of the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution. Most of us are still in awe at the rapidity of change that such immediacy and connectedness has brought in a stunningly short time.

I commenced my own career in international relations with the British Council in Kano, Nigeria just 30 years ago. My only means of daily communication was a walkie-talkie radio link to Lagos once a day. Typed work letters were dispatched in a courier packet to London once a week and I might expect replies in a return courier packet a fortnight later. These days I expect the e-mails from my laptop in Washington to be answered by our current colleagues in Kano within minutes. If not, I’ll reach them on their cellphone. Nearly everyone in the urban world can tell a similar story.

More broadly, the forces of globalization have transformed the means and modes by which we collaborate to address world issues. The extended embrace of communications and the extending imperative of communicability mean that we need to herald ‘the global community’ as the latest and ultimate grouping, joining the other varied, plural communities to which we all belong. Communities are societies of mutual interest. They have been typically local, providing solace, meaning, support and shared identity to individuals whose well-being is improved and assured by such recognition of common cause. As the reach of communication and the insistence of interdependency have grown, the community concept has also geographically and demographically stretched. It now embraces ethnic regions, diasporas and national boundaries. In a further stretch, it’s now the transnational community that is at the heart of modern international relations. The European Community is, perhaps, the most salient use of the term and the United Nations is the self-explanatory primary testament to this resolve. Worldwide well-being in the future will depend on an intelligent negotiation of a diminishing planet’s commitment to the protocols, the motivation and, above all, the will to recognize the validity and necessity of the previously absurd notion of a global community as a singular world society of mutual interest.

In 2013, there is no political, economic, environmental or social issue of significance which is not international in impact and thus requiring of discourse, negotiation, response and engagement at a world level. Local questions of development, prosperity and security, of work and leisure, of rights and values, invariably stretch beyond the local to accrete regional, national, transnational and world implications. In 2013, no man is an island. Indeed, no island is an island.

There is an attendant imperative coupling wit h the vertiginous and compressing impact of globalization. The insecurity and distrust experienced globally since the events of 11 September 2001 further emphasize the most important question relating to international well-being, prosperity, security and even survival for a dispersed human race which is beginning to know itself with a new and unaccustomed singularity. How can our constituent cultures, societies and communities collaborate on addressing the world’s common problems without sacrificing the inherent diversities which identify and vitalize those cultures? In other words, how can the global be animated by the local? What rights, values and behaviours must we enshrine as universal, leaving all other benign aspects of our several cultures to be not just tolerated, but distinctly celebrated? Or, to return to our ancient philosophic forebears, how can we—all 7 billion of us—still lead the good life?

At the root of addressing these questions is another newer dimension of globalization. The past few years have seen the accelerated globalizing of education, particularly the domains of knowledge, aptitude and professionalism captured by the concept of ‘international higher education’. This is a globalization which is determined upon the democratizing of career-oriented educational opportunity for all populations and demographics and which uses ICT to question and override our static assumptions about traditional educational delivery. This newer globalization is liberating opportunity for all through flexibility, mobility and self-access.

In this context, the word ‘university’ seems to finally have found its root cause and meaning. Universities—hub institutions of knowledge, research, learning and (critically, given the virtual encroachment) experience—have the capacity to advocate the ‘univers(al)ity’ of their intent and offer. This is a universality of content, of form and of constituency. By content, universities are recognizing their professional responsibility to address world issues by drawing together interdisciplinary programmes of interrogation and research. By form, universities are stretching their local and national boundaries to accommodate, by virtual tools and transnational presence, more universal territories. And, by constituency, enlightened universities are ensuring that policies of access and inclusion encourage studentship irrespective of social strata and financial means and with an international profile to make, of each globally populated campus, a mini think-tank of uniting nations.

If ‘university’ is a word that has newly found its animating denotation, so has the word ‘education’ itself. Education leads out. Teaching is not about pressing knowledge and information into students; it is about drawing skill and capability out of students—finding, by inspiration and imagination, what is inherently there, nurturing t hat and helping orient it to opportunity and self-realization. At the higher educational level, such elicited, educated, led-out opportunity is not just the illuminating of pathways to employment and careers, though developing employability does remain education’s primary social task. The self-realized opportunities that higher education must elicit within students relate most fully to those students’ growing sense of identity, home and place in the world they inhabit. For identity, home and place are also the changing attributes of globalization; in this case the globalization of the individual and the individual student’s more mature sense of what it means to be a global citizen.

Pioneering universities are now realizing that they must be vibrant global centres for creating understanding around the endlessly developing and morphing nexuses between the global and the local. It is our universities that hold the interdisciplinary faculty and knowledge resource to create spaces, foster conversations, research, and mature, professional guidance to determine intelligent and informed responses to world issues including development, climate change, environmental destruction, human rights, medicine, poverty alleviation, urbanization, security, intercultural tension, employability, peacebuilding and all other issues that crowd the daily news bulletin. The success of a modern university will increasingly be determined by its capacity to address such matters within a global panorama while culturally contextualizing those same issues by understanding through which local prisms the light of research must also radiate.

The globalizing experience of higher education is also questioning the traditional siloing of knowledge pursuit by traditional subjects. Our ultimate subject of study is the human condition and the human experience in the physics of the planet we in habit and in the metaphysics of the existential experience that defines us. Thus each separate act of study needs to know its purpose within a more holistic realm of knowledge and research. There is certainly a useful functionality in categorizing research and learning into a typology of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), social science and humanities subjects. Though the methodology of each academic discipline maybe distinctive, their contents are contiguous. Our vision of ourselves will be severely flawed if we assume that these differing subjects are categorically separate. It is essential that the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences increasingly work together to gain a more mature and widely informed understanding of developmental issues worldwide. A water problem in Mali or a nutritional issue in Bangladesh may need the insight of the historian, theologian and the psychologist as much as the agriculturalist, engineer and economist.

The pursuit of knowledge is, in a very literal sense, an act of distinction. All research breaks things down, takes to pieces, explores constituent parts and seeks to create distinctive and diverse insight where previously there was ignorance, confusion or a false singularity. Education thus leads to an increasing identification of diversity and to a greater tolerance of difference. It is the university that guards this international, intercultural and interdisciplinary vision and the best universities create themselves of a multicultural and multinational register of students and staff. For the individual student, there can be no better educational catalyst than to work and study in a welcoming but culturally different context by studying abroad. This hopefully enjoyable, but sometimes challenging, experience of displacement can illuminate students’ realization of the human values and conditions we all share while simultaneously testing the distinctive and inherited aspects of their individual cultures in the foreign and varying context.

As globalization generates a homogeneity of worldwide human experience, universities must encourage us to know and protect the levels of mutuality, distinction, cultural trust and respect by which the world must also still work. Universities must also help us plot our shifting identities and affirm the values we all must share in common while equally championing the differences we all must celebrate as a diversely evolved pattern of cultures, societies and faiths. The role of the good university is to enable us to understand more deeply how we can live plurally and tolerantly as one globalized world.