The power of tertiary education – Nina Pels


Nina Pels (Commonwealth Scholar, MA International Education, Bath Spa University) talks about the importance of partnerships, collaboration and dialogue in tackling global challenges in higher education

It was such an honour to be invited to the Wilton Park event, my first conference as a 2017/18 Commonwealth Shared Scholar in the United Kingdom. The team that put everything together did an amazing job. Right from the email interactions to participants, airport pick-up to food and the ambience of Wilton Park will stay with me for a long time. The selection of speakers and attendees made it all the more inspiring. Resource persons working across the length and breadth of the education sector in and out of the UK were invited to share their thoughts on the topic, ‘Maximizing the Power of Tertiary Education: Strengthening Partnerships for Global Impact’. This topic was very timely in my point of view, owing to the fact that the global challenges that we face today are not only isolated to one country. They are felt all over the world directly or indirectly. Very recently we witnessed how Ebola crossed the shores of Africa and found itself in the United States. It goes without saying that, now more than ever we cannot afford to play isolation.

One thing that resonated with most participants was the need to foster stronger partnerships for the collective good built on trust and goodwill rather than economic gains. The pressures of political instability, weak governance structure, funding and general lack of resources that tertiary education faces, are still very deeply entrenched in many developing countries. It is going to take more than a few policies, laden with western-style copy and paste approach. Rather, we need to allow policy makers and funders understand and appreciate the underlining nuances that is inherent in our different contexts.

In order to be more effective, there is the need to redefine and reorient our thinking and understanding of higher education’s impact on society. This involves asking the big, complicated, messy and uncomfortable questions such as what is the actual role of universities in various countries, what does internationalisation mean to us in our different contexts, how does the political climate and policy structures affect decisions and partnerships made on behalf of tertiary education in our own countries? These questions provoked very insightful and thought-provoking debates. What I found reassuring was the fact that many of the participants shared similar concerns of the need for the Global North to avoid dictating the scope of needs and wants for the Global South but rather allow them define their own understanding for some of these questions taking into account the hierarchical, social and geopolitical situations. This in the long run gives developing nations the power and authority to decide their funding needs in order for them to take ownership of the change they so desire. I am pleased that the narrative is beginning to change.

The once upon a time straight-jacket, one-size fits-all, western-style type of solution over the years has obviously not yielded the desired results and collectively, we need to put all hands on deck and figure things out sooner rather than later. This is a laudable step and rightly so, it is a step in the right direction. We can now begin to focus on redefining the parameters of partnerships where the emphasis is more on long-term outcomes and less about economic benefits.

Overall, the meeting was a great success and the general consensus was that the issues we face in higher education are more deep-rooted than we are willing to admit to ourselves. It will require a much more targeted, personalized approach for partnerships to reap desired results for the long-term. However, best practices and success stories from institutions like the Asian University for Women, OP Jindal Global University, Education New Zealand, ACU, PASGR and FutureLearn, are great examples of what being innovative and adapting to change means. A point these institutions did not fail to make was that, their ability to reinvent themselves in the midst of their challenges to a large extent happened as a result of broader consultation they had with partner institutions in order for initiatives and strategies to stand the test of time and remain sustainable. It would have been interesting to hear Africa’s contribution to this global discussion because Africa is also making great innovative strides in meeting its higher education objectives.

My fear, as has been shared with other scholars from developing countries, is returning to a system and an environment that is hostile to reform, new ideas and reluctant to systemic change especially when people cannot relate with our experiences living abroad. This is where I believe my work as a scholar begins. It is now time for me to take responsibility and begin identifying like-minded institutions and individuals in my home country who have created the enabling environment that embraces change and innovative ideas. My key takeaway from this conference will be to understand how to overcome these social limitations, no matter how small, so as to become relevant to the people or team I work with in the near future.

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