Posted by: bluesyemre | March 24, 2022

Is #globalisation dead? And what would this mean for universities?

Source: iStock/Stefan_Alfonso

War in Ukraine may reshape university internationalisation, but most academics do not expect a knockout blow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has extinguished many of its cross-border academic and scientific ties for years to come, and some commentators say the impacts will stretch well beyond the former Soviet Union, completing a worldwide retreat from globalisation that began with Brexit and the Trump presidency and accelerated during the pandemic.

Newspaper columnists have warned that higher education and research will become embroiled in a global circling of the wagons, as a resurgent Cold War pits Western allies against a China-Russia bloc and many nations prioritise “economic sovereignty” over mutual interdependence.  

Decoupling is already evident in finance, with Russia creating its own card payment and financial transfer systems years before its banks were banned from the Swift global financial transaction scheme in March.

In technology, countries and regions are pursuing self-sufficiency in the manufacture of semiconductor chips and choosing between rival Chinese and US-backed 5G networks. Western countries have discouraged or banned the importation of Chinese telecommunication equipment, while the US has barred Chinese supercomputing groups from obtaining American technology.

Europe’s desire to wean itself off Russian energy was laid bare when Germany halted certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. In medicine, Western authorities have been slow to recognise eastern Covid-19 vaccines such as Russia’s Sputnik V, India’s Covaxin and China’s CanSino. Despite competing for vaccine markets, China and Russia have cooperated in trials and production.

Such geopolitical fault lines have been exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict and the responses it elicited, some suspect. “We may decide that the definitive moment globalisation died was when China, India and South Africa all abstained on the United Nations vote condemning Putin’s invasion,” writes British journalist Robert Peston.

What could the death of globalisation mean for higher education? Could the cross-border flows of knowledge and students dry up, as nations rely on scholarly pursuits in their own institutions and those of like-minded neighbours? Could global trends undermine a core mission of universities – preparing or retraining workers for the knowledge economy – as manufacturing and food production is brought back in-house, and developed nations lean more on their own people for manual and repetitive labour?

Academics said that the war raises important questions about internationalisation, but most were sceptical that global cooperation has had its day – particularly for universities and research. “Globalisation in the higher ed area is here to stay,” declared Philip Altbach, of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education.

“There may be some hiccups and there might be some broader changes economically, but the globalisation of science and the knowledge economy are sufficiently entrenched that they are not going anywhere.”

Professor Altbach said it would take a “very long time” for US relations with Russian science, academics and universities to return, “if ever”, while student mobility into Russia would be confined to former Soviet countries. But these patterns were unlikely to extend to China, unless Beijing started supplying Moscow with money or arms.

He said that Chinese enrolments in major Western countries had been declining before Covid, partly because of “rapidly deteriorating relations”, but postgraduate applications were “doing reasonably well” and recent surveys indicated that Chinese interest in overseas study remained strong. “That [downward] trend is likely going to continue, but not in a big way,” Professor Altbach said.

“[Student] sending and receiving countries change from time to time, for all kinds of geopolitical and other reasons [including] immigration policies. Iran was at one point a very major sending country and isn’t any more. India was somewhat down and is now back up.”

Professor Altbach said Chinese doctoral students tended to remain in the US after graduating. He said international co-authorship of research papers would “remain quite strong”, notwithstanding “blips” like the demise of collaboration with Russia.

James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said “all bets would be off” if China offered Russia military assistance or blatantly disregarded Western sanctions. “But I consider neither likely, and as long as that’s the case, the US would struggle to rally a coalition to start hitting China with countermeasures,” he said.

“Most countries, certainly those in the Asia-Pacific, aren’t rushing to confront their major trading partner and the dominant economic and strategic reality in the region. My sense of China’s assessment is that its interests overwhelmingly lie with globalisation rather than isolationism. A broad technology decoupling from the West would be disastrous for its long-run growth prospects.”

Professor Laurenceson said Beijing’s failure to condemn the Ukraine invasion was “far from a full-throated backing. China is not Russia. This idea that somehow China and Russia are aligned in their outlook is just fundamentally wrong.”

He said that the invasion could mark the end of “unfettered” globalisation. “But that still leaves scope for an awful lot of globalisation to continue. There have been issues of research collaboration with China. The question is whether Ukraine dramatically adds to that. I just don’t think it does. Would Chinese parents be less interested in sending their children to Australia because of what’s happening in Ukraine?”

In an op-ed published by The Washington Post, Chinese ambassador Qin Gang rejected suggestions that his country had “acquiesced to or tacitly supported” the war. “There were more than 6,000 Chinese citizens in Ukraine. China is the biggest trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine, and the largest importer of crude oil and natural gas in the world. Conflict between Russia and Ukraine does no good for China.”

Nevertheless, former intelligence analyst and diplomat Rory Medcalf said that the conflict would prompt Western institutions to re-examine their China links. “Universities in democracies around the world would be well advised to consider their China exposure, and what would be their position in the event of a China war,” said Professor Medcalf, who heads the National Security College at the Australian National University.

“If China were to launch a violent assault on Taiwan, and potentially find itself at war with the US, it is likely that economic ties with China would shut down across many nations. Academic and research links would be part of this much larger rupture – not just on moral and political grounds, but because China has built much of its security capability from dual-use research with the West.”

Professor Medcalf said the world was unlikely to return to the “easy globalisation” of the past two or three decades. “This is not an end to internationalisation, but what we’re losing now is globalisation. Just as with internet governance, we’re going to see increasingly different ecosystems existing side by side – authoritarians on one side and democracies on the other. I don’t see the geopolitical pressures easing, at least for the next decade, and they’re quite likely to get worse.”

Universities that tried to straddle these ecosystems faced “a lot more complexity, mistrust and state intervention”, he added. Australian institutions, for example, would need to navigate the reporting regimes of the Foreign Relations Act, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, the 2018 Espionage and Foreign Interference Act and potentially other legislation. “For many research relationships, the default position is going to be [that] it’s too difficult to try.”

But Professor Medcalf said that some forms of international collaboration could intensify – for example, among members of the Aukus security pact of Australia, Britain and the US. “It’s quite likely that there will be incentives from government and industry for universities in those countries to work much more closely on sensitive technology research.”

Gerry Postiglione, coordinator of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia at the University of Hong Kong, said collaboration could also intensify across the fault lines. “If China races ahead in science and technology…you may find more students from the West going there.

“It’s too early to say how this is going to shake out. The future is the riskiest venture to get into. Things happen fast or slow, depending upon the millions of factors that affect the economy, politics or military relations.”

Professor Postiglione agreed that universities would face more government-imposed controls around national security. “But there’s still a lot of room outside that, and another factor at play is that most countries are on board regarding climate change. All countries realise that solutions to climate change, poverty alleviation, alternative energies or pandemics are best [found] in conjunction. I don’t see higher education globalisation slowing down.”

International education expert Louise Nicol said graduate employment outcomes, not geopolitical ruptures, would have the biggest impact on student flows.

“I don’t see any change to the thirst to go overseas and study if you can afford it – and, if finance can be made available, even if you can’t afford it,” said Ms Nicol, founder of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia Careers Group consultancy. “But I do I see a backlash from students when they can’t get jobs.”

Ms Nicol said that the Ukraine conflict and China’s zero-Covid policy would both affect student flows, at least temporarily. “Students aren’t going to go and study in Russia for a while, quite rightly, and at present they still can’t get into China.

“But in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, I see more young Russians going overseas to study. And as soon as China’s borders open, I see a huge influx of people going there to study – and a huge outpouring of Chinese studying elsewhere.”

University of Melbourne human geographer Craig Jeffrey said India’s failure to condemn the invasion was broadly consistent with its decades-long non-aligned stance, and would be perceived that way. There was “no way” that Western institutions would refuse Indian students because of their government’s stance on Ukraine.

Professor Jeffrey said that the conflict could harm India’s economy by raising the price of oil and squeezing the availability of core food grains and fertiliser stock, of which both Ukraine and Russia were important suppliers. The crisis could also jeopardise the flow of Indian students to Russia, but it would not stem Delhi’s broader commitment to globalisation – particularly in higher education.

“The Indian government has made a major effort to make India an attractive place for its top students, attract students from other parts of the world and potentially open foreign branches of the Indian Institutes of Technology. They’re eager to learn from other countries about how to internationalise.” Negotiations are already under way to host IIT outposts in the UK.

Conceptualisations of globalisation can be simplistic, Professor Jeffrey said, with developments like the withdrawal of McDonald’s from Russia given unwarranted significance. “You could say 1990 to 2022 was the era of globalisation because the Golden Arches were in Moscow, but that’s a pretty lazy way of thinking.”

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