The ethical challenges of global connectivity – A response to Fazal Rizvi

A personal response to the opening keynote by Fazal Rizvi – ‘Global connectivity and its ethical challenges in education’ at the 29th ISANA International Education Association Conference, 5 December 2018, Sydney Masonic Centre, NSW, Australia.

Professor Fazal Rizvi, a name synonymous with ‘cosmopolitan identities’ in international education (see his 2005 paper), presented to international education practitioners, a dilemma in our contemporary times. International education, a notion that implies openness, cooperation, and collaboration, operates in a world that is moving towards ethno-nationalist sentiments.

US President Donal Trump encapsulates such sentiments with his calls for US protectionism, and so do the political landscapes in other countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, France, and India. Even while the world is becoming ever more connected, anti-globalisation is gaining traction, revealing the tensions and limitations of so-called ‘global connectivity’. There is a deep-seated fear of the potential loss of national sovereignty in the face of job loss and migrant communities encroaching on the spaces of local populations. On the other hand, globalisation offers little tangible benefit for the every(wo)man, and can be argued to favour the transnational elite, i.e., those who have the resources to engage in, and reap the rewards of, global mobility. Viewed as such, globalisation is, in fact, anti-democratic.

Rizvi invites us to understand the concerns of those against globalisation, and question if the assumptions and charges are valid, and how such perspectives can be harmful and unproductive. He also considers the question if there is really a fundamental binary between globalisation and nationalism. Specifically for international education practitioners, how do we get our students to respond to these competing claims of internationalisation and patriotism. Do these go together in parallel, in dialectical fashion, or can they only exist in conflict?

Rizvi also reminds us that nationalist sentiments are driven by both facts and emotion, and so it is important to address both the politics of global connectivity and affect. International education posits a global village of sorts, but the world as a whole is not a community in any real or concrete sense. He stresses that people are inherently social beings who wish to belong to a tangible and concrete community, and such desires undermine the abstract notions of globalisation.

Rizvi points out some facts of global connectivity:

  • Our economy has become dependant on global mobility as in tourism, trade, migration, and education.
  • Growing levels of intercultural exchange are seen in service economics.
  • Different cultures rub up against one another; ‘cosmopolitan’ cities become so because of tourists and international students.
  • Even if government policies appear to curb mobility, migrant populations will continue to increase as a result of complex individual choices.

The overriding sentiment towards these facts, however, is one of resentment. If globalisation used to represent some universal moral truth, then it is now up against those who demand specificity in their own moral truths (plural). While Rizvi proposed the concept of cosmopolitan thinking more than 10 years ago, he now recognises the need for new theories. He argues that cosmopolitanism and the associated images of corporations must be resisted as a universal value, but adopted as a way of engaging with everyday issues and conflicts.

Rizvi looks to education as the hope for such cosmopolitan thinking, in view of the failures of media which have become increasingly fractured, and of religion which appears to divide rather than bring people together. Education, and in particular, public education, has a crucial role to play in teaching people how to engage in ethical learning.

He puts forth the need for engaging in cosmopolitan thinking which views social identities as dynamic, and forces us to consider how we can live across differences. Students need to be taught how to be reflexive, that is, to be critically self-referential. We ask questions about why and how we do things, and learn how to work through contradictions. And before we can ask of our students to do so, we ourselves, need to be ethically reflexive practitioners in international education.

What I have summarised above is Rizvi’s call to arms for international education practitioners to recognise the competing forces of globalisation and protectionism, and to actively – reflexively – work against unproductive outcomes. Both intellectually and in practice, I am inspired to take up an ethical response to the current state of affairs. But before I can take on the giants of globalisation and protectionism, I want to respond to a nagging and troubling aspect of international education that is seldom discussed. My troubling thought can be summed up quasi-rhetorically – What is international about international education?

To paraphrase Betty Leask (2009), the presence of international students alone does not internationalise education, or foster intercultural interactions and understanding. To push the point further, using the term ‘international’ or ‘internationalise’ has the grammatical effect of modifying the nature of the noun that follows, but the meaning and significance of ‘international’ is lost in the everyday concerns, both petty and grand, of those who fall under the purview of ‘international education’. The overriding concern for education providers and student consumers alike is ‘return on investment’ (see Altbach & Knight, 2007).

As part of the system of global connectivity, international education is far more valued as a commodity than an opportunity for engaging meaningfully with cultural and social differences. In other words, international education itself is implicated in the unproductive forces of globalisation. Spending three days at the 2018 ISANA conference in Sydney , I observed well-meaning practitioners showcasing ‘best practices’ of meeting the linguistic and cultural needs and demands of students, but rarely highlighting any challenges related to interactions between international students and the host community. Walking around downtown Sydney, one of the leading Australian cities for international students, I saw rows and rows of East Asian shops (food, services, goods) patronised predominantly by East Asians, suggesting to me that at least this group of international students (who form the majority) can remain comfortably in their familiar spaces, without having to entertain the possibility of intercultural engagement.

I have only painted a broad stroke of what can be considered un-international in international education. Addressing learning and living needs, and helping international students adapt to new surroundings, are important responsibilities to be fulfilled by education providers. Often, national grouping of students are helpful (at least initially) to reduce the sense of isolation, and facilitate more efficient communication. However, beyond providing services and opening up ethnic-friendly spaces, there is also a need to proactively bring together different nationalities, including that of the host nation, to engage in conversation, let alone debate, about being ‘international’ and engaging in ‘post-cosmopolitan thinking’. Where there are international gatherings, at least in my own international student experience, they very rarely go beyond differences safe enough to chat over pizza and juice.

There seems to be an ongoing inertia or reluctance to challenge commonly held narratives of internationals (a common nominalisation for international students which is ironically divisive) who haven’t got enough English to save themselves, and need rescuing from their own deficits. My own research has attempted to thwart the deficit narratives by examining how co-ethnic/national interactions enhance informal academic learning through ‘peer brokers’ who are able to translate and interpret the Western/English demands of university curriculum in linguistically and culturally responsive ways. Through such brokering practices, students experience agency in their academic pursuits.

While one of my conclusions is to encourage sociolinguistically compatible interactions for enhancing student agency, another important implication of my research is the role of brokers who straddle two different cultural worlds. How might such individuals be viewed or view themselves as the missing link in intercultural engagement and difficult conversations about living ‘internationally’? Perhaps brokers who can switch between worldviews are potential bridge builders between the ‘internationals’ and ‘others’ / ‘sojourners’ and ‘hosts’, and eventually lead to alternative vocabulary we can use to describe those in and around international education.

If I were to take on that kind of a brokering role, I would start with difficult conversations. To consider how international education can rise up to the challenges globalisation and protectionism, we must firstly reckon with the ironies of, and tensions in, the global industry international education has become. We have to re-consider how ‘English language’ and ‘Western thought’ are both selling points and selling out in becoming global. And this is just the beginning of my ethical response.