Meng-Hsuan Chou and Pauline Ravinet
Higher education is undeniably global. But this did not prevent interested policy actors, meeting on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna in 2015, to emphasise the significance of the global and international dimension, as their colleagues have done at the 800th anniversary of the University of Paris nearly 20 years ago. As academics, we know that higher education has a deep relationship with globalisation: from rankings to mobility of students, faculty, and staff; from quality assurance to student-centred learning outcomes; from university governance to the digitalisation of teaching and research collaboration. It is nearly impossible to separate the two. Yet we are still lacking a clear and shared definition of ‘global’ and ‘globalisation’ among higher education practitioners, scholars, and observers—the very people who have been struck by their intensifying relationship since the very beginning, whenever that was. Our handbook chapter develops a set of conceptual tools and lenses to understand the global transformation of the higher education sector by focussing on a particular pattern of this phenomenon we call higher education regionalism (Chou and Ravinet 2015).
Scanning the globe, we see regional initiatives in the higher education sector. For instance, in Europe, we have the Bologna Process towards a European Higher Education Area, familiar to the readers of this blog. But there are many more. Indeed, there have been consistent efforts in building common areas in Africa: the African Union’s harmonisation strategy, sub-regional initiatives of the Southern African Development Community, and activities of the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education. Similarly, in Latin America, there is the ENLACES initiative, the MERCOSUR mechanisms for programme accreditation (MEXA) and mobility scheme (MARCA). Looking East to Asia, there are the many initiatives from the AUN and the very exciting SHARE programme. These are manifestations of higher education regionalism, which we define as referring to:
[A] political project of region creation involving at least some state authority (national, supranational, international), who in turn designates and delineates the world’s geographical region to which such activities extend, in the higher education policy sector (Chou and Ravinet 2015: 368).
We derived this definition after a review of what has been written on higher education regionalism in political science and in higher education studies—two distinct sets of literature that have much to say about this phenomenon, but rarely engage each other in a fruitful conversation on the subject. From political science, we learned from scholars who examined regions, ‘new regionalism’, and European integration (Caporaso and Choi 2002; Fawcett and Gandois 2010; Hettne 2005; Hettne and Söderbaum 2000; Mattli 2012; Warleigh-Lack 2014; Warleigh-Lack and Van Langenhove 2010). From higher education studies, we obtained insights from scholars who are serious about the impact that the re-composition of space, scales, and power have on past, current, and the future state of higher education (Gomes, Robertson and Dale 2012; Jayasuriya and Robertson 2010; Knight 2012, 2013).
The lessons from our review led us to these three positions concerning the study of higher education regionalism:
- It must be comparative. Studying higher education regionalism means comparing varieties of higher education regionalisms to consider the sector’s apparent isomorphism.
- It must be sector-based. Studying higher education regionalism is to take serious the particular dynamics of higher education and how they interact with the wider multi-purpose regional organisation (EU, ASEAN, AU, etc.) and national needs.
- It must be differentiated. Studying higher education regionalism means to distinguish between intra-regional initiatives (within one geographical region) and inter-regional initiatives (between at least two geographical regions).
With these points of departure, we proposed a heuristic framework to study higher education regionalism along these three dimensions:
- Constellation of actors central and active in these processes: this means identifying the individual and collective actors involved and mapping their interaction patterns.
- Institutional arrangements adopted, abandoned, and debated: this refers to identifying the institutional form and rules and the instruments considered and accepted.
- Ideas and principles embedded and operationalised: this points to identifying the paradigms, policy ideas, and programmatic ideas guiding the instances of higher education regionalisms.
These three dimensions require intensive fieldwork with the key actors involved, which we are currently undertaking in the Southeast Asia region. But we invite researchers - especially those examining less studied regions such as Africa and Latin America – to get in touch so that together we can contribute to the conversation about higher education and globalisation from the regional perspective.
Meng-Hsuan Chou is Nanyang Assistant Professor of public policy and global affairs at NTU Singapore and Pauline Ravinet is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Lille 2. They both acknowledge the generous support from Singapore’s Ministry of Education AcRF Tier 1 and Institut Français de Singapour (IFS) and NTU Singapore’s Merlion grant for this research.
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