Originally posted July 2010

As universities respond and adapt to globalization and internationalization, there may be an emerging trend towards a “new global regionalism” (NGR) in North America, East and Southwest Asia, Latin America, the Gulf States, the Middle East, and Africa. Within this new landscape, we may see other regions of the world building stronger regional networks and partnerships particularly relevant to international student mobility, study abroad programs, transnational higher education, and the accelerated movement of research and technology among regional universities, businesses, and government agencies.

This shift towards global regionalism may develop incrementally over the next five to ten years. Whether this new global regionalism is in response to the Bologna Process to create a more attractive and marketable European Higher Education Area is unclear. What is clear is that these regions, and the nations that comprise them, are committed to building their own sustainable higher education systems and strengthening their regional economies over the next decade.

Moreover, regional economic imperatives will drive the local knowledge-based economy, and higher education will be a major catalyst in this process. This potential regional focus raises a number of considerations for host nations and foreign providers that will be highlighted later. This essay discusses a variety of these issues within the context of the emerging global higher education landscape and concludes with some thoughts about the potential implications for the Middle East.

The Global Cultural Dichotomy

Indeed, although there are significant regional developments in the Middle East and in Southwest Asia, these regions do not function in a vacuum. It is useful to consider these regions within the context of the global transformations that are driving knowledge-based economies, the internationalization of higher education, and global initiatives such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “Education for All” and the Millennial Goals.

At the heart of these global transformations is what I would term “the global cultural dichotomy.” This refers to the growing adoption of English and “Western” ideas and practices in business as well as higher education in concert with preserving the unique linguistic, cultural, and social norms that define nations and regions. At present, this is not an either-or scenario or an “us versus them” issue. There are advantages and limitations to both sides of this dichotomy ... The fundamental question is what is the optimum balance between English-Western globalization and ensuring that the cultures and languages in non-native English speaking countries are preserved and protected. Moreover, there are many who view this trend as a subtle euphemism for cultural imperialism. Though such a view may be an extreme, reactionary response to this trend, it nonetheless highlights the critical issues facing many nations and universities, which are equally committed to embracing modernity and preserving their language and cultural heritage.

Within the global higher education landscape, the dominant recruiters of foreign students and deliverers of cross-border academic programs, research, and technology transfer are the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The “Big Three” also represent significant global dominance by major multi-national corporations of diverse global market sectors (banking, technology, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, tourism, etc.). What does all this mean? It means that English is dominant and ubiquitously promotes Western ideas, practices, and cultural norms in these major global markets.

Conversely, it is also important to recognize that despite the influence of the Big Three, there is growing evidence that China, India, the Gulf States, Germany, France, and many other countries are moving up the global economic and higher education stratum. While the accuracy and subjectivity of League Tables that rank universities is controversial, it is equally apparent that these “new global regions” are in fact moving up the ladder, most notably East Asian universities during the last two years. Also promising is the development and investment of resources by nations in the Middle East, the Gulf States, and Africa to create regional higher education hubs.

We tend to think of protectionism primarily in terms of trade deficits, GNP, and other economic indicators. However, if one views the changing global landscape in terms of the “perceived threat” of cultural or academic imperialism, then by extension the use of academic and cultural protectionism emerges as one alternative strategy to counterbalance English-Western influences. Indeed, it is at this critical juncture that the conceptual construct of a “new global regionalism” begins to take shape.

Paradoxically, the dominant Western powers in the global marketplace (US, UK, and Australia) are intrinsically insular and parochial nations. This paradox manifests itself in other enigmatic ways. Despite the dominance of these nations in recruiting international students and delivering cross-border programs, a small percentage of students from the Big Three study abroad, have advanced language skills, and have a true understanding of what it means to show mutual respect, humility, and tolerance as global citizens. This is not a lack of understanding; it is a lack of awareness and to some degree ignorance. Perhaps foreign partners can enlighten these providers towards more cultural awareness rather than academic imperialism. Indeed the key question that emerges is whether a new global regionalism will become a strategy for counterbalancing foreign academic imperialism. Time will tell.

Emerging Considerations within the New Global Regionalism

What are a few of the considerations that each region, and the countries within that region, should examine relative to higher education and internationalism? Generally, they can be divided into 1) priorities for the home region/country/university and 2) expectations by the home region/country/university of foreign providers and partners.

Host Region/Country/University Priorities

  1. 1) Developing economic and cultural goals of higher education within the region, country, and university sector.
  2. 2) Defining internationalism within the regional higher education and political sectors and the regional strategy for the higher education sector.
  3. 3) Determining what foreign providers bring to the region/country that contributes to economic development and creating a sustainable higher education system.
  4. 4) Identifying advantages and limitations of having foreign partners providing academic programs, research, and technology transfer to the region.
  5. 5) Establishing requirements for foreign providers to operate in the region and/or nation; local partner requirements; contractual reinvestment of profits back into the programme; and any requirements for a portion of the curriculum delivered in the native language.

Expectations by Host of Foreign Providers

  1. 1) Foreign providers need to clearly articulate the academic, research-related, and potential economic benefits of operating in the region.
  2. 2) Foreign providers need to clearly outline the cultural, social, and professional advantages they will bring to their students.
  3. 3) The foreign provider needs to be viewed as a high quality, reputable, and value-added partner by the local institution to serve local students.
  4. 4) The foreign provider needs to offer a comprehensive array of student support services for local students, particularly if the programme is offered in English. Have the foreign providers clearly done its homework about the cultural, language, and social norms of the host country, the region, and the partner university?
  5. 5) The foreign provider needs to have proven experience and capacity for multi-modal delivery of their academic programmes (e.g., distance learning, face-to-face, blended learning, etc.).

These questions are not all inclusive. There are many other areas that require serious analysis in developing cross-border partnerships. They do, however, provide a general framework for balancing the opportunities and the perceived drawbacks to these partnerships.

Advancing Regional Higher Education in the Middle East

The educative capacity to transform economies, tolerance, societal harmony, and global citizenship is immense. Education is the future of the Middle East.

Perhaps there is a new “fundamentalism” that needs to be embraced in the Middle East - the fundamental power of education to transform lives, cities, nations, and regions. This is a requisite value that must be promoted across all sectors of Middle Eastern society. Without it, discussion of collaboration or regional higher education will lie dormant. Moreover, embracing education is not synonymous with relinquishing the history, culture, and religion of the region. It may simply require a “reasonable” accommodation of education within the context of these indelible values and ideals. While this may be challenging, it is not impossible.

The inherent strengths of the Middle East are usually underestimated by locals as well as Westerners. The region is rich in history, culture, ethnicity, customs, food, philosophical thought, religious teachings, topography, and much more. These are invaluable assets that can be utilized to build education at all levels throughout the region.

What does all of this mean for education in the region? Foreign providers are delivering higher education programs and research in the Middle East. Many of these programs are taught in English. But, the Middle East is also a region where people speak French, Italian, German, Greek, and other languages. These are not liabilities but, indeed, assets that the region can and does use as a catalyst to build a sustainable, high quality educational system. There are excellent universities that are improving year after year. There has been considerable progress in advancing opportunities for women in higher education. More and more universities are integrating technology and open and distance learning methods into their program. In sum, the region has made incredible progress despite the many challenges of civil strife and conflicts across the region.

The global regionalism of higher education is about education yet is embedded in economics, politics, cultural and societal norms of the region. Building regional capacity is not about Western or Eastern supremacy, it is about setting regional agendas that can be achieved locally and with the collaboration of foreign knowledge, expertise, programs, research, and technology transfer. The key is to create a balance that at the end of the day strengthens the region and creates opportunities to transform the lives of all its citizens. The people of the region have more in common with each other than with those in any other part of the world. The success of global regionalism in the Middle East may indeed be more dependent on this commonality than on any other factor.

The Road Ahead

The globalization of higher education suggests that regional strategies may play an increasingly important part in future development of foreign partnerships, branch campus models, and regional economic sustainability. The new global regionalism may become a viable strategy for counterbalancing the growing concerns about academic imperialism by foreign providers. At the same time, this balance scenario may strengthen both local initiatives and foreign partnerships by clearly articulating the critical cultural, linguistic, and social issues that regions such as the Middle East, East Asia, Europe, and other global regions will promote and expect.

Moreover, traditional patterns of global student mobility are likely to change. These changes, however, will not be due to rigid regional parochialism but rather to the basic market forces resulting from more providers that translate into more choices for students, universities, and nations. Perhaps nations that have traditionally dominated the recruitment of foreign students to their shores will be held accountable for ensuring that their own students are engaged in study abroad, language programs, and the cultural prerequisites of living and working in a diverse global village.