ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE INTERNATIONALISATION AGENDA IN HIGHER EDUCATION #SAIConf2017

I had the pleasure to attend the Sociological Association of Ireland conference in Belfast last week.  One paper I presented was based on work I have done with my colleague Lisa Moran, and her critical inquiry into the experience of being an ‘international student’.  Lisa presented on this research at the SAI last year, and I presented some of the work at the European Conference on Educational Research at UCD last summer.  That presentation was part of a symposium related to a large project examining ethical internationalisation in higher education.  On the basis of that Lisa and myself were invited to work up our paper for submission to a special issue of the European Educational Research Journal, on ethical internationalisation.  The presentation in Belfast was based on that paper.

Below, I summarise the Belfast presentation.


The presentation explored how the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) makes it possible to re-story internationalisation in ways that recognise the agency of international students, produces narratives where international students themselves speak to, around, about, and of internationalisation, and enables us to trouble dominant discourses on higher education internationalisation. While the BNIM approach is comparable to other narrative interviewing approaches, it is the iterative method of BNIM that enables the production of powerful narratives.  Lisa is the expert on BNIM so my presentation focused on mostly on other aspects of the research, particularly the ethical dimension.

I presented some highly selective extracts from the extended interviews conducted with those individuals who participated in the research, compared these to the way students are narrated in policy discourse, then discussed how BNIM made it possible to produce these narratives, and finally to argue such narratives enable us to trouble dominant policy discourses.

THE STUDY

A key argument made in the presentation was that individuals are constituted as international students by being caught up in networks of texts (such as national or institutional strategies), local organisational practices, interpersonal interactions, and improvisations in living.

‘I don’t see why the college thinks we are different although it treats us as different…. I had to pay 2 years of fees for 1 year in first year and get a reimbursement in the future and that’s because I’m international’ (Amy 24)

This extract refers to the way students are constituted as ‘international’ and thus different through administrative systems.

While Amy recounted her own ideas of being international that were very much to do with expanding her social, cultural and intellectual horizons, particularly as a woman, this contrasted with how she was constituted by the institution as an international student.

IT IS BY BEING CAUGHT UP IN ADMINISTRATIVE PROCESSES THAT A PERSON IS CONSTITUTED AS DIFFERENT.

‘Irish are just like onions… you have to peel back the layers to know what they are saying…. Like what you’re all really saying…’ (laughs) (Louisa 37)

‘We say everything really directly but here there is a subtext… an agenda. People will cancel at the last minute…. Now I’ve adopted that too…. I’ll just do as the Irish do and when I go back to Germany, I’m German again’ (Katherine 26)

Policy discourse stresses intercultural competence as a positive aspect of mobility as a central feature of internationalisation.

Intercultural competence certainly featured in the narratives of the students.  However, it took on a different quality to that found in policy discourse.  Intercultural competence for the students was emplaced, lived, often anxious, and positioned them as other.

Interestingly, most of the women did not speak about internationalisation in terms of their studies but in terms of their sense of self and difference and new possibilities for being in the world.

But they also talked about danger, of the vulnerability of being a young woman in a different place where the cultural scripts may be different, where being friendly and open can easily be conceived as sexual availability, and so make them objects of the male gaze.

‘I was walking on the terrain, renegotiating what the terrain means of localness, otherness and international and what this means for the self and for others……’ (Rachel 34)

Belonging is a performative and negotiated act. These individuals spoke about how they were positioned through policy, through interpersonal interaction, mediated through cultural scripts and norms – how this positioning as international student or foreigner was troubling for them and for others, could often be ambiguous, and how it was always embodied, in specific bodies that were gendered and racialised – and how this is absent from the disembodied, unplaced discourses of policy.

POLICY

In a world of increasing globalisation and interconnectedness, with the emergence of new powerhouse economies and the reorientation of the world economy, Ireland needs to take a strategic approach to developing relationships that will be of national importance in the coming years (Investing in Global Relationships DES 2010)

(1)recruiting the best international students to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; (2) encouraging all staff to engage internationally; (3) promoting global citizenship and (4) fostering a culturally enriched and respectful university campus (Based on the fieldwork institution strategic vision)

Although the institutional strategy is closely aligned with the national strategy, and it is aligned with the European strategy which in turn is strongly aligned to the OECD position, these strategies are not identical, though they carry similar social imaginaries of higher education and internationalisation.

These two strategy documents present ways of conceiving or imagining higher education in the context of internationalisation.

Mobility, in these two documents, is framed by economic rationales through the close alignment of knowledge work with discourses of the knowledge economy.

Investment in internationalisation is fundamentally concerned with the exchange-value benefits to the national economy through enhancing global higher education networks. Indeed, the national internationalisation strategy represents part of the ‘branding’ of Irish higher education as a tradable commodity as ‘Education Ireland’. The national strategy explicitly discusses how Irish higher education should be conceived as a ‘brand’ in similar terms to that of tourism or the attraction of inward foreign investment

Framed by a corporate imaginary, national policy documents portray a ‘transactional’ understanding of internationalisation whereby international students are perceived as investments in future business and research opportunities.

ETHICAL INTERNATIONALISATION?

Dominant discourses, institutional strategies, and practices purport to ‘know’ international students without speaking to them.

A transactional approach requires little in terms of institutional response. If the international student is already known, either in terms of them being bearers of ‘recruitment targets’ or future ‘returns on investment’, then there is no need for an ethical response, or to know them in their full humanity.

Drawing on Levinas, we argue that such discourses, strategies, and practices constitute acts of violence in denying the humanity and personhood of international students.

…SPEAKING BACK TO POLICY

We argued that BNIM, because of its iterative method, makes it possible for international students to re-story, and re-embed experiences of internationalisation that escapes dominant storylines.

The BNIM method allows for participants to construct storylines that are troubled by dominant discourses, but can also ‘trouble’ policy. These discourses ‘trouble’ or ‘disconcert’ policy narratives by emphasising the agency of international students themselves (e.g. how international students ‘transcend’ how they are portrayed as mere ‘categories of policy’ and ‘income generators’ for universities).

However, these storylines also underline the ‘dark’ side of internationalisation. In this case the highly gendered and racialised experience of being ‘other’ and ‘othered’ in diverse, ‘everyday’ spaces and places (e.g. policy realms, the home, recreational spaces).

The BNIM narratives revealed here act as an ethical demand to radical hospitality. Being open to the ‘other’, in this way, means being open to change as a consequence. This ethical demand to openness contributes, we argue, to rethinking and re-scripting higher education ‘otherwise’.

The university may well gain from ‘recruiting’ international students in domains like university rankings, and future research and investment in the Irish economy. But the ethical relations between international students and institutions must be re-ordered or ‘thought otherwise’.

Institutions can also gain from speaking to international students rather than just about them. This invites a shift from learning about the international student to learning from them, and in so doing, thinking the university differently.

Building on the student narratives about their experience of difference, becoming, and ‘gendered danger’ invite an ethical response. We argue that this requires going beyond received notions of intercultural understanding or abstract ideas of how the international experience expands individual’s personal horizons.

Taking the experience of ‘gendered danger’ we argue that the ethical invitation necessitates a transcendence of institutional responses to internationalisation that are usually framed through the lens of the provision of services (e.g. sexual consent training), as vital as these are.

Instead, it invites institutional leaders to examine the degree to which cultural scripts and knowledge that is embedded in higher education institutions ignore or denies the embodied and gendered nature of student and faculty experience, of how higher education institutions can be ‘careless’ places for women and many men.

In being ethically open in this way the university can become, in its interaction with international students, more than itself, more than it was before its encounter with these students. This implies a dialogical ethics as a basis for internationalisation strategy and practice where the possibility for what the university can be is constituted in the spaces where university and international student encounter each other.

BNIM enabled us to construct narratives that have the potential to trouble dominant discourses of internationalisation through outlining some of the boundaries of this dialogical encounter and responsibility.

 

Suicide and the University Mission

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Last month we buried my daughter’s boyfriend.

As she celebrated getting her place at college he took his own life.

So I have had no appetite for blogging, planning for the new semester has been delayed, dealing with outstanding issues from last academic year shelved, and as for my own academic writing – that has been well and truly dismissed. We struggle to make sense of the tragedy and all else seems pointless.

I have struggled with myself about the ethics of writing about such a painful and personal matter for a public blog. He was not my son, so what right do I have to write of his death. But this tragedy is our tragedy. Ours in the sense of a societal tragedy. It is the scale of male suicide that make these personal issues public concerns.

This wonderful young man is part of a phenomena that rips open the hearts of families and communities on a scale resembling that of an epidemic. The biggest killer of young men under 24 in Ireland is suicide. 8 out of 10 suicides are committed by young men, and men are more likely to use violent forms of self-murder.

Our region, economically and geographically ‘marginal’ is viewed as a suicide blackspot for male suicide. Indeed, it is a fact that out there, in this region, there is another young man who sees in this awful event a cue to his own act of self-murder. The terrible pain we are all feeling will not be a deterrent. It is likely he will barely see this, instead focusing on suicide as a final escape from a daily horror of emptiness and mental anguish. It is also likely that he is self-medicating in some way, self-medication that hardly registers as such as high levels of alcohol consumption are socially sanctioned, indeed expected at such events as Christenings, birthdays, weddings, and of course funerals.

It is my daughter’s boyfriend’s place in this litany of youthful death that makes it a legitimate item for this blog.

It is probably no coincidence that he took his own life when he did. He was about to return to university, but with little apparent appetite for it. All around him were young people who had just received news of their exam results and about to take up places at college. As my own daughter celebrated this with him his mind was already turned towards providing a permanent solution to a temporary pain.

[As a sufferer of depression myself I know all too well that such phrases mean little when, having been happy, you again find yourself dipped into another anguishing period of bleakness. There feels nothing ‘temporary’ about it.]

With all this ‘hope’ around him, his own sense of hopelessness was most likely amplified. We know the end point of that amplification.

But I know from talking with many of these young people that alongside the sense of success and achievement at having ACQUIRED the grades, and GOT their place on a preferred course of study, there is a doubt. There is a doubt about the societal path they have followed all these years. A path lined with ‘cheerleaders of success’ – parents, teachers, politicians. To GET the grades, to GET the place is held up as the pinnacle of their young lives. While their school and college SUCCESSES will be regarded as evidencing the good work of education, their FAILURE, indeed their DEATHS will be viewed as failings of the individual, the family. As parents we know that we are hardly ever called into school to share in our children’s achievements, only ever their misdemeanours.

There is a doubt carried by many young people about the wisdom and truthfulness of the narrative that tells them that all this learning, all this acquiring of grades and college places is worth the personal and psychic cost. There is a doubt about the ‘opportunity bargain‘ – they are to play their part in increasing national economic advantage by participating in higher education, and as a result they will have better, more lucrative lives.

But there is a doubt.

Paul Verhaeghe has written recently about the neoliberal fetishisation of consumption, of the construction of societies where the the constant acquisition of SUCCESS through education, jobs, love is the total measure of a persons value. Elsewhere, at at a different time, Erich Fromm analysed modern Western society as one dominated by a particular mode of living characterised as ‘having’ as opposed to ‘being’. A soulless society. A society where we are haunted by hungry ghosts, tormented by never being satisfied. Always seeking more and better.

Just BEING somebody’s son, or BEING somebody’s boyfriend could never be enough in our society, not when society said that the QUALITY OF BEING was measured in such external and ephemeral things as qualifications.

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I can’t help but wonder whether this young man, in whatever inchoate sense it appeared to him, also confronted this doubt. At the heart of mental health issues is a deep sense of disquiet. All around you see a world that demands success, but success framed by HAVING – money, fame, power, qualifications, authority. The idea of doing something well simply to do it well, for no external validation, is anathema to this culture. You look around at this, and then at yourself, and realise that HAVING SUCCEEDED at school, and SUCCESS at getting into college, you sense an emptiness, a LACK OF BEING.

I look out of my window here at the university and see all of these new first year students. I feel the tears rise up as I am consumed by a sense of dread. Which of these bright, energetic, wonderful people will be so consumed by emptiness that they will take their lives. This area has seen over 20 suicides this year alone.

Does the University take care of them? Well, we know that they don’t take care of us. CARELESSNESS seems to be the hidden (and perhaps not so hidden) reality of our universities, something Kathleen Lynch has written so eloquently on.

So is it time to reconsider what this is all for?

Is it time to reconsider what the role of the university is when confronted with a society whose young men wish to die. Will we TRULY look after the young people who enter our gates?

Can we put CAREFULNESS at the heart of our work?

And if not, is there any point in working here?

What does it mean to know a place?

I have just overseen the removal of the final bits and pieces (21 boxes to be exact) from the office in my previous employ.

Such events are significant, they mark a passage from one location to another (in this case to a different country).

The institution itself invokes a host of feelings from nostalgia, to regret, to horror, to ambivalence.  But what exactly is an institution?

Yes, there is the building itself – the stairs, carpeted corridors, the lift that was always breaking down forcing a healthy walk on all and sundry.  There is the particular quality of the light at different times of day and year and face of building.

But, while physical places, the geography of a place, can imprint themselves on you, actually it is people that fix a place, and more importantly, frame the quality of place.

The academic literature, in its usual abstracting manner, talks of the way academics identify with their disciplinary tribes, of how our disciplines feature more strongly in our imagination than our institutional location.  So, the theory goes, we identify more with other mathematicians, or historians, or educationalists than with the particular employing institution.

That may be so.

But again I would suggest even here it is the quality of interactions with particular people within the ‘discipline’ that really counts and defines ‘discipline’ for us.

To say I remember a certain institution really what I am saying is that particular interpersonal interactions occurred that animate my pathic memory of that place.  It is the friendships that are important, the folks we continue to think about fondly, to email, to arrange to meet at conferences.  It is also the pain, the hurtful behaviours.  It is the excitement you gained from working with students.

To say I belong to this or that ‘discipline’ is to say something about the social spaces I frequent where I meet particular others, and hope to meet others who I can form qualitatively positive relations with.

The boxes are packed and taken away.  Next week they arrive in a new location.  And in this location I am forming new relations that will be captured by the short term – place, institution.