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Transnational perspectives on higher education and global well-being

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By Rajani Naidoo

The contribution of HE to global wellbeing was not always accepted. A view long held by the World Bank and other powerful actors was that investment in HE would bring limited social and economic benefits to developing countries. This view, which led to large scale disinvestment, was successfully challenged and in 2000 the World Bank itself positioned HE as a crucial engine for economic and social development1. In the context of the knowledge economy, the assumption is that HE will enable low income countries to ‘leap-frog’ over intermediate developmental stages and improve their positions globally2. At the same time, the formidable obstacles to the development of high quality systems of HE in many developing countries are recognised3. In this context, the provision of HE by foreign and corporate providers may be seen as an attractive solution in countries where governments are unable to readily acquire resources to commit to HE.

But to what extent can trans-national HE contribute to global wellbeing? Important strands of contemporary research respond to this question by situating HE in the context of the dominance of neo-liberalism and geo-political power struggles. At the same time, such research has shown that HE has always had a relative autonomy and that universities can contribute to social change in the most draconian societies4.

Analysts have referred to the geo-politics of the 21st century as an era of ‘new imperialism.’ While classical rivalries were legitimated by ethnicity in the colonial period or the war on communism in the cold war period, it is religion that is now deployed to explain conflict5.  Rising powers such as China, a one-party state with a giant economy or Brazil, with its opposition to armed US interventions and its forging of a regional identity with Cuba and Venezuela have potential to disrupt global power relations6. The Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas spearheaded by Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba has an anti imperialist and anti-neoliberal stance. In an era of neo-liberal deregulation, international organisations and transnational corporations wield increasing power on all aspects of public life including HE.

HE stands at the centre of these developments. The intensification of the struggle for positional advantage in the global economy and the competition for highly skilled knowledge workers have contributed to a fierce competition within and between national systems of HE. I have referred to this as the competition fetish. In addition, researchers such as Buchanan have been highly influential in the application of neo-liberal market mechanisms and public choice theory to higher education. I and others have shown that creation of a global market in HE of course a rigged market which is twisted with strong protectionism to create an un-equal playing field7.

Researchers have also analysed other types of competition in HE. These come with their own set of rules based on institutions already judged to be ‘the best’  and include ‘excellence’ or ‘world class’ policies and are re-enforced by global rankings which exert an influence on all institutions, even those in developing countries which have little capacity to feature in such rankings.8

While research advocating pro-market neo-liberal policies has influenced policy and practice, research that has been critical of such trends has been largely marginalised. Such research has indicated that the transformation of higher education into a commodity may result in developing countries particularly those with weak regulation becoming mass markets for low quality education with attendant effects on development and global wellbeing. Research that has raised concerns that transnational education may lead to the erosion of indigenous values and culture has been more influential. Development organisations and universities in high income countries increasingly recognize the danger of reproducing unequal imperial type relations and have taken steps to reflect more critically on power and culture.

Given the above, what are the research priorities going forward?

Firstly we need to undertake research that exposes some common myths that are presently clouding debates on HE and global wellbeing. Modernity is not a single, unified homogenising process and the West is not the only yardstick by which success is measured. Market fundamentalism and the competition fetish are not inevitable9. In addition it is not so easy to divide the world between the powerful global north and the powerless global South. My analysis drawing on the scholarship on uneven and combined development shows us that there are connections between high status universities low income countries which are detached from their surroundings and linked to the higher education power centres of the north and the black holes of under-resourced institutions located in the richest countries in the north but dislocated from power10. At the same time we have to expose the myth that public institutions always work in the interests of the public good.

In the same way we need to be wary of constructing a reified binary between dominant ‘Western’ and ‘indigenous’ knowledge. A binary logic contrasting American and European culture with ‘non-western’ cultures; or modernity with tradition denies the multiplicity of peoples’ lives and discourages criticism of intergroup conflict. There is also the danger that equating knowledge in a simplistic manner with ideology or culture will result in us losing all mechanisms to evaluate knowledge.

Third, even more fundamental is how we define education’s contribution to the development of world societies. We are currently witnessing world-wide attacks on public systems of HE. The blame for pervasive poverty, growing unemployment and social unrest is laid at the door of HE rather than seen as an outcome of policies related to predatory capitalism. HE plays a part here but it would be a grave error to believe that HE in isolation can contribute to global wellbeing. It is therefore very important to link HE to wider development and global wellbeing strategies.

The research field is characterised on the one hand by macro global political economy analyses. Intellectual giants such as Robert Wade shows us how global power relations shrink the development space open to low income countries. We also have approaches such as the capability and human rights approaches which place people at the centre of education and development11. This body of work could also be usefully linked to an analysis of the wider social structure in which people interact. The ‘Wellbeing Regimes’ framework offers significant potential as it analyses macro structures above the state such as multi-national corporations and and those below the state such as religious and civil groups12. By linking the work on capabilities and human rights to the wellbeing regimes framework we can focus on how the mutual connections between a reconfiguration of the global system and the empowerment of local communities and individuals across national borders can contribute to the sustainability of human relationships and global wellbeing.

Rajani Naidoo is Professor of Higher Education Management at the University of Bath


[1] Task Force On Higher Education in Developing Countries (convened by UNESCO and the World Bank) (2000) Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise. URL:  http:///

2 Castells, M. (2001) ‘Information Technology and Global Development’, in Muller, J., Cloete, N. and Badat, S. (eds) Challenges of Globalisation: South African Debates with Manuel Castells (Cape Town: Maskew Miller/ Longman).

3 Sawyerr, A.  2004 ‘Challenges Facing African Universities: Selected Issues’, Association of African Universities. URL:

4 Brennan, J and Naidoo, R. (2006). Managing Contradictory Functions: The role of universities in societies that have undergone radical social transformation, in Neave, G. (Ed.) Research and Knowledge in Higher Education Policy.Paris: UNESCO Press, pp. 221-234

5 Tikly, L. (2004), ‘Education and new imperialism’, Comparative Education, 40 (2)173–98

6 Naidoo, R. (2011). The New Imperialism in Higher Education: Implications for Development, in King, R., Marginson, S. and Naidoo, R. (Eds.) A Handbook on Globalization and Higher Education. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. pp 40-58.

7 Naidoo, R. (2007). Higher Education as a Global Commodity: The Perils and Promises for Developing Countries, in The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, 1 February. (Reviewed in the Times Higher Education Supplement on 9 March 2007)

8 Marginson, S. (2009), ‘University rankings and the knowledge economy’, in Peters,M., Marginson, S., and Murphy, P., Creativity and the Global Knowledge Economy, New York: Peter Lang, 185-216;  Enders, J. (2014). The Academic Arms Race: International Rankings and Global Competition for World-Class Universities. In Pettigrew, A.M., Cornuel, E. & Hommel, U. (eds.) The Institutional Development of Business Schools. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 155-175.

9 Naidoo, R. (2011)  Higher Education and the Competition Fetish. Keynote to the Consortium of Finnish Higher Education Researchers’ Annual Conference, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, 22-25 August 2011

10 Naidoo, R. (2014) Trans-national Higher Education: Global Wellbeing or Cultural Imperialism? Keynote to the United Kingdom Forum for Education and Training. University of London Institute of Education and University College. 24 September 2014

11 Walker, M. and Unterhalter, E. (2007) (Ed). Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education. Palgrave

12 Gough, I. and Wood, G. (2006) A Comparative Welfare Regime Approach to Global Social Policy, World Development, 34,10, 1696-1712

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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