Restructuring universities, EDI and conformity: a view from comparative distance

3rd May 2023

Author: Terri Kim

Image of Terri Kim

I hear depressing news about restructuring universities in financial contraction these days in the UK and elsewhere, accompanied by many distressing anecdotes from fellow transnational academics who have chosen to work abroad outside their home countries. Crossing ‘borders’ – not only internationally but also institutionally – is often a long series of exciting and risk-taking adventures, both professionally and personally.

Most recently, I was shocked by the Danish news, which makes me think about the changing academic profession and state-university relations in longue durée comparative perspectives.

A colleague in Denmark had emailed me saying: "I am still in Copenhagen, but not for long. Universities here, as you probably know, function as businesses directed by government policies. The government now is drastically cutting on humanities and social sciences; and universities, since there is no academic tenure here, are terminating contracts, even of professors, on an extensive scale... These are the consequences indeed of turning universities into business enterprises… in Europe, as many of us predicted..."

The THE report more than a year ago warned about possible widespread academic job cuts in Danish universities. However, there was a much earlier precursor: i.e., cuts of English medium instruction (EMI) in universities, signalling the ‘de-internationalisation of Danish higher education’. The rationale for closing down English-medium-taught degree courses was to control rising financial aid expenditure (SU) for EU students, within the stern view that too many international students do not contribute to the Danish economy although they were gaining a degree “funded by the Danish taxpayers’ money”.

I am wondering what will happen if Danish universities introduce full tuition fees for international students to pay as UK universities did over four decades ago in 1981. Unlike cautionary warnings then, UK universities have continued to grow with a leaner and meaner policy designed to increase market-principled accountability and internationalisation. There are over 605,100 international students in UK universities as of 2020/21 - making the UK as the top destination for international higher education after the USA. This means the Government’s target of 600,000 international students by 2030 was met 10 years early.

The market logic in governing and managing universities is rampant and becoming endemic globally. Other Nordic countries are not exceptions in this trend. Norway is also moving in a similar direction at least at the policy level. It is now introducing international student tuition fees. Overall, there is a high level of global ‘conformity’ in higher education policy direction.

Another transnational academic in Oslo comments on his Facebook: "This decision, to squeeze tuition fees out of non-EU foreign students coming to study in Norway, was one of the worst shocks in 23 years of my life here. It is not only about cynicism and lack of solidarity (Norway got record $89.5 billion extra income on higher oil/gas prices in 2022 thanks to the carnage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and it does not wish to use even a small fraction of a percent of this additional income on the students from low-income countries coming here?)… It will devastate the international cooperation networks Norwegian HE sector has been building for decades. It will cut down the flow of foreign talent to Norway – in the time when it needs it more than the proceeds from fossil fuel sales if one thinks about the future."

Meanwhile, an American academic based in Korea comments: "there has been 'education inflation' for the past 5 decades. We graduate more degree-holders than the market can employ, while society lacks technicians. It is indeed time for universities to scale back and for vocational studies to focus on society's socio-economic needs. I don't dismiss Humanities, but when 30% of Humanities grads can't find a job, government should fund other endeavors."

However, I couldn’t agree less with this logic. I don't think the purpose of receiving higher education is just for employment. I believe in 'universal higher education', especially as liberal education is one of the fundamental human rights. For that purpose, I argue the notion of ‘border-crossing’ mobilities has been an intrinsic part of higher education since ancient times.

Speaking of fundamental human rights and border-crossings, there is a concerted effort to institutionalise EDI/DEI policy into practice in many countries around the world – particularly where market-based university restructuring is being actively implemented currently. I find this rather ironic.

The EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) policy imperatives span across many boundaries (gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, disability, neurodiversity, etc.). While there seems to be a lot of choices promoted regarding gender and sexuality, there is still very little about race/ethnicity/nationality. In UK academic job application forms, there used to be just two straightforward questions asking about one's identity in terms of gender and sexuality. Nowadays, there are multiple complex questions regarding one's gender and sexuality to comply with the new LGBTQIA+ EDI policy imperatives. By comparison, however, the racial and ethnic identity questionnaire appears to be still archaic, reflecting the post-War immigration policy mentality of the last century.

As a Korean who has been based in the UK and Europe for almost three decades, I still need to think twice to tick the ‘other box’ (Ticking the ‘other’ box: positional identities of East Asian academics in UK universities, internationalisation and diversification: Policy Reviews in Higher Education: Vol 3, No 1) as there is no category provided in the EDI questionnaire and UK census (Census - Office for National Statistics) directly relevant to my racial/ethnic/national identity.

As a comparative educationist, I have traversed many borders and boundaries in both the epistemic and real worlds – over the course of my career as an international academic, and life as a foreigner in the UK and Europe. In hindsight, I judge that my comparative research inquiries of 'transnational identity capital', 'diaspora', ‘ethnic nationalism and internationalism’, 'internationalisation' and 'EDI' and ‘interculturality’ have been affected by my changing positions and experiences in crossing boundaries as a ‘stranger’ with a new comparative gaze.

Completing EDI questionnaire is required in any job application in the UK and this is in fact an important reminder and ritual for me to practise ‘othering’ myself. I am not only otherised by the exercise itself, but also coerced to comply with the expectation to end up ‘othering myself’.

It is inevitable that there will be discord between the policy agenda and its actual implementation as a process of institutionalisation and everyday practice. To realise EDI in practice, there is bound to be some form of so-called ‘positive discrimination’, and other unintended consequences of discrimination, however well-intentioned.

Given the complexity of organisational behaviours and irrational human biases embodied in everyday life, what we as academics need to do more consciously is a cognitive exercise to detach ourselves from the dominant discourses instead of immersing ourselves in the rampant conformity regime in academia.

About the author

Terri Kim, PhD (London) is Professor of Comparative Higher Education (honorary full professor) at UEL, Visiting Professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the UCL Institute of Education, and Principal Fellow of Higher Education Academy (PFHEA).

She serves on the editorial board of Comparative Education, Intercultural Education and Policy Reviews in Higher Education and is a Vice-President of the Comparative Education Society in Europe (CESE).

Her scholarly interests centre on transnational academic mobility/migration, knowledge and identity; international relations, diaspora, internationalisation, interculturality and EDI in higher education, the academic profession, state-university relations, university governance and leadership, comparative historical sociology of higher education, and comparative education theory and methodology.

She has published one book, five edited volumes (Special Issues) and 57 articles internationally (Google Scholar). Many of her invited talks and publications have permitted her to translate her research-based knowledge in accessible ways to diverse international academic communities and international organisations as well as national governments and other policy-making stakeholders: e.g., OECD Higher Education 2030, European Migration Network, Academia Europaea, Universities UK, Public Policy Exchange, QS Aim, Times Higher Education, University World News, etc.

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