This January, my University hosted a group of Monash University students from Malaysia on nine-day, non-credit study tour. Eighteen months of logistical preparation, including securing permission from University authorities, preparing University facilities and recruiting student guides, preceded this visit. While we are not strangers to international exchanges, this marks the first time we are doing institutional hosting of this scale. This event follows other initiatives like the Balik (Returning)-Scientist, Visiting Professor and other recruitment schemes directed at attracting Ph.D. holders from abroad to join our faculty in Iloilo. Even our academic journals are getting a much needed title and editorial board revamp with the conscious inclusion of foreign scholars.
“Internationalization” is the new buzzword as our University strategizes to catch up from its 200th place rank (out of 300) among educational institutions in Asia. We are hopeful that by increasing international linkages, we can reach light year speed and engender better performance from the faculty in terms of publication and other academic metrics. It is a tough gamble knowing the tight fiscal predicaments of foreign donors and the moral imperative of balanced (rather than lopsided and patronizing) engagements. The push to “democratize” linkages also means bringing my University outside its traditional fisheries and coastal resource moorings that initially grew out of graduate school networks (since mostly Fisheries colleagues obtained graduate degrees abroad and therefore had the contacts). Today, my unit rivals the Fisheries College for its cosmopolitan feel. A third of my Division’s (social sciences) faculty received advanced degrees from American, Canadian and Japanese universities (including 4 Fulbright grantees).
But to be more international carries its own perils. At a recent conference, a colleague revealed we fell victim to a broker of shady Chinese colleagues with dubious intent: they primarily want us to be a feeder English language training school. An MOU was already drafted when their faulty credentials were discovered. Parallel proposals for a more robust faculty exchange (lectures and research) with Korean Universities were met with skepticism because of concerns about their English language skills. Because of our June to March academic calendar, it is difficult to enter into a credit-earning scheme for foreign undergraduate students in the region who are on September to June mode. A host of infrastructure-related dearths, such as lack of housing and broadband Internet for on-campus computing services are also impeding us. Should international partnerships be expanded beyond traditional “rich” enclaves (i.e. Japan or Canada) to have a more Asian or South-to-South focus, such as the current one with a Fisheries school in Liberia?
The Philippines will be part of the ASEAN Free Trade Area by 2014; the race is on to harmonize educational systems and standards across the region. My University’s own policy emphasis on internationalization parallels the controversial K-12 push at the elementary and secondary levels. Down the free-market road for education, we will compete with better placed institutions in Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia for the best faculty and students.
I am not one of those globalism pessimists. I am a firm believer of the enriching power of diversity in academic provenance, the “leavening” effect of exposure to international academic trends, and the equalizing potential in open and free markets for tertiary education. The first order of business is to shift our mindset: it is NOT enough to be among the top three schools in the Philippines; regional ranking matters.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed