Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Moral Compass

The Times Higher carried an excellent piece this last week from Bruce Macfarlane of the University of Hong Kong.  He considered the rise of UK University campuses in various pasrt of the world - principally the Far East and the Middle East which may not necessarily share Western Academy 'values'.  He concluded:   'Clearly, UK universities are under pressure to be both business-facing and public-spirited. But in taking their brand to emerging markets, they need to be aware that they are trading off the essence of what it means to be a university. This is about more than profit: it is about being trusted as a critic and conscience of society.'

His thoughts very much chime with my own developing thinking in this area.   I was recently told by someone I regard as a reliable source, the story of a senior HE manager (at a different Uni to my own) who was recently sent on a recruitment/development visit to one of these markets.  The individual concerned was somewhat worried by what might be regarded as a 'culture clash', and commented that they would be rather unlikely to see people of the same sex walking hand-in-hand in that particular country.  The senior manager concerned walked away from a deal, apparently suggesting that this was not a people they wished to do business with.  Even allowing for some exaggeration, it's still a remarkable story.

HE managers are increasingly tasked with tapping in to these huge markets.  As a UK academic, I'm also all too aware that it is these international students that increasingly enable my salary to be paid each month.

Nonetheless, it's not just the overseas campuses that Macfarlane highlights which we should be concerned about.   Distance learning, and bringing international students 'on campus' (i.e to the UK) also raises questions about 'internationalisation'.  This should be a two-way street, but is often about positioning the UK product to be appealing internationally.  Goodbye Jiff, hello Ciff.

For law, this means less emphasis on human rights law (not a great seller in China or large sections of the Middle East), and more about commerce, trade and business law.  A subject like law and sexuality is simply not commercially viable for this audience.

What then for this subject?  Well, it means that it will be difficult for the subject to gain a massive influence amongst masters provision (except those courses which are designed for, and successfully attract home students) and will arguably also increase pressure on undergraduate module space as programmes are rationalised, and overheads trimmed.

Far from British education being sold internationally, there is something of a reverse flow going on when it comes to 'values'.  It is surely - as Macfarlane suggests - a key aspect of a UK legal education that certain values and debates are also transmitted - be it human rights, legal theory or sexuality, yet this debate about what I would call 'the soul' of law programmes is rarely discussed.

The big players of the legal education market -which like to think of themselves as bastions of liberal legal education values - are nowhere in this debate.  Moreover, I wonder how many academics believe that someone in their own institution would similarly walk away from a deal rather than embrace a homophobic or sexist regime?

Given a choice between employment and unemployment, I also know which one I will choose.  Yet, I can't help wondering whether I've been short-changed for my soul.

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Paul Brownsey said...

Relatedly, when I was an academic at Glasgow University I found that the International Office advertised various courses and activities for the "spouses" of foreign students. They displayed great resistance to amending this to "partners", claiming, e.g., that many foreign students would not understand our meaning of "partner". I thought what was really at the bottom of it was a wish not to upset those paying high fees from conservative countries. But I note that Glasgow's International Office now speaks of "spouse/partner" so maybe I contributed minutely to that.

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