Universities must sell the benefits of globalisation


In this era of instant global transfer of information, accessible international travel and rapid technological advances, young people necessarily have the potential to be global citizens. Universities set themselves the aim of providing a truly international experience for their students and staff.

I am a profound believer in the merits of globalisation and the moral obligation that universities have to ensure that their students and staff have access to opportunities all over the world. Our role is also to help to equip them with the skills and tools that they need to maximise the self-improvement and societal benefit that can stem from those opportunities. However, such a belief in globalisation is far from universal: I am well aware that many people feel that globalisation has helped others but not them, or that the benefits of globalisation have been exaggerated.

Political leaders in various parts of the world have capitalised on this sentiment: electoral surprises in the UK and US (among others) have certainly included an element of anti-globalisation motivation. Defeated French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said that “globalisation is slowly choking our communities”, among other similar remarks. Whole sections of society need convincing that globalisation, which in my opinion is largely irreversible at least in the short to medium term, is a force for good, not for evil.

Universities can and must play their part in this.

At my institution, the University of Hong Kong, our efforts fall into two major categories: internationalisation at home, and the creation of opportunities outside Hong Kong. For the former, the foci are internationally minded curricula; diverse and integrated international populations of students and staff; visiting speakers, teachers and scholars; international conferences; cultural events, sometimes in collaboration with foreign consulates, trade missions or businesses; language tuition and so on. Of course we are assisted by being located in one of the world’s most vibrant international hubs, on the doorstep of mainland China and within a short flight of half of the world’s population.

This geographical location also assists the second aim, namely the creation of opportunities outside Hong Kong. We have set ourselves the ambitious target of providing opportunities to 100 per cent of our undergraduates for two experiences outside Hong Kong during their four (usually, sometimes five or six) years of study: one in mainland China and one somewhere else in the world. For our research postgraduate students, our aim is also 100 per cent, but we expect this to be only one such opportunity, cognate with their research project and likely influenced by the interests and contacts of their supervisors.

This plan, especially for undergraduates, brings major challenges of organisation, quality control, safety and of course funding. However, we firmly believe in the educational and pedagogical benefits of such experiences. We believe in taking students outside their comfort zones; exposing them to new places, people and circumstances; challenging them to see the world from the perspective of others sometimes very different from themselves; confirming our view that much learning can and should take place outside the classroom. The opportunities can be many and varied: dual or joint degrees, semester or whole-year exchanges, study-abroad modules, internships, experiential learning, working with schools, universities, industry, charities or social enterprises.

We do not aim to be prescriptive. Some of these activities can be credit-bearing but this is not a prerequisite.

In order to bake a cake, you need ingredients, expertise and infrastructure. The ingredients of our internationalisation cake are talented students, most of whom already have multiple language capabilities, an institutional determination to make this area a strategic priority and the conviction about educational benefits that will result.

The expertise is growing: some of our faculties have more experience than others of internationalisation, but by spreading of best practices, learning from other like-minded organisations and willingness to learn from experiments including successes and failures, we are acquiring the necessary skills. The infrastructures that we need, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere, are formidable.

We are committed to ensuring that all students have equal access to internationalisation opportunities, irrespective of personal or family wealth. Since about 40 per cent of HKU’s students come from underprivileged backgrounds, this means that many will need financial support. We have been fortunate in benefiting from considerable philanthropic support for many aspects of the university’s work, and we hope that this will continue. Internationalisation is so integral to the University of Hong Kong’s past, present and future that we will make every effort to achieve our aims.

But how can we measure “global citizenship”? How will we know that we are successfully providing our students with the appropriate elements to maximise their opportunities in the modern world?

Of course, one outcome measure will be employment statistics, but these will need more granularity than is currently easily available. Our graduate employment statistics are incredible: 99.7 or 99.8 per cent employment in every recent year. However, we need to know where these jobs are, how “international” they are, which parts of the university experience influenced job choices or employers’ decisions and how much mobility has been created.

League tables of internationalisation already flatter us: for the last two years we have been placed third in the world in Times Higher Education’s ranking for international outlook, and in 2017 we were the top comprehensive university in this league table.

If we achieve our 100 per cent targets by the year 2022, which is our stated aim, where will we be in the league tables? Does it matter?

Author Bio: Peter Mathieson is president of the University of Hong Kong.