Newsletter June 2003

 

University International

Promoting Democracy Through Globalizing Education

 

There are several processes in international development which are normally attributed to the phenomenon of globalization: the opening to free trade and multinational capital, the increasing migration and new security threats, the changing definition of state sovereignty, and the growing influence of international organizations. Rarely if at all does internationalization of education methods and standards become part of the globalization debate. As many believe, one of the major dilemmas of globalization is the persisting gap between rapid world economic and trade liberalization and sluggish democratization in developing states. Although little attention is given to trans-national higher education and growing harmonization in the education market, it is possibly the most effective way to foster democratic institutions in the developing world and to build cross-cultural understanding between nations.

 

One of the major questions arising with the opening of labor markets and increasing labor mobility is the harmonization of education standards and validation of degrees. This is a very old problem, and national governments as well as international institutions have taken different approaches to this issue. Europe has achieved the most significant progress in this field compared to other regions. As early as in the 1950s, the Council of Europe established several conventions and information networks in order to ease boundaries to labor mobility. Besides negotiated governmental agreements, transparency and harmonization in education require a highly sophisticated information network. The largest system of information centers in the European Union today is the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC), which was created in 1987. The database ORTELIUS established by the European Commission and operational since 1996 is located in Florence. It provides all kinds of information on higher education systems of the EU countries.

 

The Bologna Declaration of June 19th, 1999 signed at a large meeting of European rectors and education ministers, was an amazing step towards multilateral recognition of degrees and harmonization of higher education. It contains a plea to work jointly towards a common “European area of higher education”. This common framework and transparency approach to education in Europe so far have no analogies in the global arena. The only international organization supporting internationalization of higher education is UNESCO via its Centre for Higher Education in Bucharest and the International Association of Universities (IAU). The Convention on the Recognition of qualifications concerning higher education in the European region, adopted in Lisbon in April 1997 as a result of collaboration between the Council of Europe and UNESCO, represents a revolutionary change in the very logic of trans-national educational development. The Lisbon Convention has replaced the concept of equivalence of educational standards and diplomas with the idea of multilateral recognition, thus acknowledging diversification in the education market. It is a great misunderstanding to interpret attempts to harmonize higher education as a process of reducing it to a common standard denominator and refusing cultural diversity. To the contrary, globalization of education brings about more diversity and allows more exchange between previously isolated national educational traditions.

 

Globalization of higher education is supplemented with another important trend, which could be described as deconstruction of the classic academic tradition and overall pragmatization of education. It has been closely related to the emergence of MBA programs and the concept of business education. The classic academic tradition has always relied on the transfer of fundamental knowledge in the form of memorizing and systematization. But in the modern world, especially in the world of business, one cannot rely on purely formalized knowledge. What becomes more important is the ability of an effective decision-making especially in a cross-cultural environment. That is why contemporary education programs attach greater importance than ever to interactive teaching methods, case studies, outdoor training, assessment programs, and academic exchanges.

 

The pragmatic approach to trans-national education relies on academic exchanges, joint programs and international universities consortia. The largest and most successful example of a transnational exchange initiative is the ERASMUS program in Europe. It allows any student from a EU country to study at a university of his or her choice in another EU country normally for the period of a full academic year.

 

It is unfortunate that, at a time when trans-national education has become an important tool for promoting democracy worldwide, it has become more difficult for many students to travel abroad. Since September 11, 2001 the US has seriously tightened its visa policies for foreign students. Some would support such measures by referring to the 9/11 suicide bombers who have entered the US with student visas. But nothing could be more harmful for the process of global democratization in the long run than punishing one and all students from developing countries for a single though horrible bureaucratic mistake.

 

Nevertheless, whatever bureaucratic policies will be applied to foreign students in developed countries, they cannot prevent the spread of global education by means of Internet, video-conferencing and other modern information technologies. Today, the eleven most important open universities in the world together enrol about 3 million students. The corporate sector is also becoming very active in this sphere, with multinational corporations such as Microsoft, News Corporation and numerous others. In addition, the non-governmental sector is also effectively exploring this field by launching such programs as the Global Education Tele-community Initiative started by the Ford Program and Global Education Motivators (GEM) in cooperation with the Association to Unite the Democracies. The various Open Universities have done pioneering work not only in the developed world but also in countries such as Turkey, India, Indonesia, Brazil, etc. The rapid expansion of distance learning has created a situation in which new education programs and methods are being developed beyond bureaucratic boundaries.

 

Piotr F. Kaznacheev, PhD is a member of the Board of Directors of the

                                                        Association to Unite the Democracies residing in Moscow.