The Myths and Realities of Higher Education Globalization: A View From the Southern Hemisphere

Johnson Muchunguzi Ishengoma
State University of New York at Buffalo

This paper discusses the concept of globalization and its application to the context and perspective of higher education in Developing Nations (The term Third World is has prejudicial connotations; “countries in the South would even be better). The paper argues that discussions about the globalization of higher education in the context where there is not even a conceptual framework of what globalization means is a fallacy. It is further argued that globalization of higher education in developing countries is a monumental task because of inherent problems and constraints in higher education systems in these countries. Global imbalances and inequalities in world higher education systems make the globalization of the higher education sector an elusive objective.

E very era has concepts that capture the public imagination and ‘globalization’ has recently emerged as one in our time” (Hall and Tarrow, 1998). Globalization is a newly formulated concept which means different things to different people: hence a multitude of descriptions, interpretations, and definitions. Defining globalization is not an easy task because we face the new situation with old disciplinary lenses and thus, we tend to dwell on what our training makes most readily apparent (Stromquist, 2002:iii).

Some academics and economists, to borrow Cloete’s words, interpret globalization as internationalization, regionalization, or Europeanization, i.e. anything that goes beyond the individual country. Thus as Cloete (op cit) observes, globalization has become a “Tower of Babel” concept because it cannot be operationalized.

However, general literature on globalization agree on the following salient features of globalization. Globalization is a process dominated by capitalist West. The process embodies the following:

(a) Economic integration in which the owners of capital, financiers and money managers from economically powerful nations-the center- have been able to easily trade and invest in poor nations in the periphery to create an international economic system or what Gopinathan (1996:74) calls an international production system.

(b) Capital movement /shift from developed countries to developed countries. This has happened in tandem with the shifting of technologies, skilled jobs, and some of the operations of multinational corporations to low wage poor countries in the South.

(c) Emergence of different modes of communication technologies, making movement of data and information much more transnational and flexible (Gopinathan, op cit).

(d) Global competition for markets and mass consumerism

(e) Changing concept of time and space-time and space becoming a single category (Scott, 2000:7).

(f) Emergence of global capitalism

(g) Constant widening gap between rich and poor (UNDP, 1999).

(h) According to IMF (2001), there are four essential aspects of globalization: trade, capital movements, movement of people, and spread of knowledge (and technology).

In theory, almost everything can be globalized from ideas, technology, to poverty. In practice, there are some issues that cannot be globalized e.g. political and cultural structures and education. As Cloete (op cit.) correctly argues, in some regions of the world, political structures, and institutional arrangements are still supranational, not global. Cloete’s argument underscores the thesis of this paper that talking about globalization of higher education in the context where there is not even a generally accepted definition of the concept is a fallacy. This brings us to the second section of this paper. What do we really mean by globalization of higher education? Does it make sense in the context of Developing Countries?

Globalization of Higher Education: Towards a conceptual Framework

Much has been written about “globalization and higher education” but only few attempts have been made to conceptualize or develop a framework on “globalization of higher education”. Many debates and conferences have been held worldwide on the impact of globalization on higher education. To quote Cloete, these debates are often based on what is being said and written by the media, on personal feelings and opinions, far less on theory-fed, research based generalizations by academic scholars. This kind of academic vacuum in these debates makes it difficult to come up with a generally acceptable definition of the concept of globalization of higher education. An attempt to define the concept from a Third World perspective is made here below.

Globalization of Higher Education Defined

The globalization of higher education in the context of this paper mean the process of integration or harmonization of world higher education systems, knowledge, competencies and skills across national boundaries in such a way that an integrated world labor market will be created through international labor mobility. Implied in this definition are: international curricula for higher education systems, standard system for certification and accreditation and transnational academic, professional and academic skills.

Major Elements of Globalization of Higher Education: A Proposal

Globalization of higher education as a process will be composed of the following elements:

1.Two-way, balanced international movement of scholars, students, researchers, professionals and academic staff from South to North and vice-versa (Currently the movement is eschewed) 2.Joint study programs and research between universities and other higher learning institutions in the North and South in which every participating institution mutually benefits 3.International communication network between higher education institutions in the North and South. This element assumes that every higher education institution in the South is linked to international communication system. 4.A global labor market for graduates from higher education institutions or what Altbach and Teichler (2001:8) calls global academic market place for both students and staff. 5.A global language of academic instruction and research 6.Worldwide access to quality higher education 7.Uniform faculty quality and higher education structures 8.A global recognition of degrees and international system of credit transfers between higher education institutions in the North and South. Altbach and Teichler (ibid)- though in a different context- calls this element harmonization of degree structures, courses, credits, and related mechanisms of evaluation and academic measurement.

Myths of Globalization of Higher Education

There are current myths among scholars that higher education can be globalized like trade, business, technology or multinational corporations. The following arguments are given: That:

(a) Higher education is now an export commodity and an aspect of international trade in some parts of the world (Scott, 2000). For example, a number of universities in the North are now opening satellite campuses and off-shore programs in the South (b) Students number in higher education institutions has now doubled or trippled worldwide-implying wider access to higher education now than in the past. (Scott, ibid). (c) Advances in communication and information technology have enabled learning and research to take place on a global scale, e.g. through distance learning, virtual universities and a global university based in the USA (See Utshumi ., & Armando, 1992 and Okuni, 2000). (d) The global market place and new technology have contributed to the rapid globalization of higher education (G.A.T.E., 2001). (e) The majority of students who may not have an opportunity to study away from home are taught studies like African, European, Latin American or Asian Studies thus being introduced to a more comprehensive view of the world. Furthermore, languages are also taught which as a cornerstone for a more globalized world (Scott, ibid). (f) Given the increasing restructuring in the world political and economic systems, higher education needs have changed, hence globalization (Cogburn: 2001). (g) Development cooperation. International cooperation among universities is a means to fill gaps in the availability of academic programs in developing countries, a way to strengthen human resource development and research in young and resource poor institutions in the South (Scott, ibid).

These are some of the arguments to support the idea that higher education world- wide is being globalized but in reality it is not.

Realities: Challenges in the Globalization of Higher Education: A Third World View

A common world- view is that higher education can be globalized or that it is being globalized. But how do you achieve globalization of higher education worldwide among countries with far greater differences of wealth, technology, education systems, and social customs and political, and economic systems? (O’Rourke, 2000). How can the globalization of higher education be achieved in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening mainly due to the globalization of the world economies?

In our view the globalization of higher education will be difficult because of the following realities and constraints:

(a) Educational systems all over the world have to preserve political and cultural identity and serve political and ideological objectives (O’Rourke, ibid). Higher education is not an exception. (b) Universities and other higher education institutions worldwide still retain their autonomous, individualistic, institutional and elitist characteristics (Scott, 2000). Scott also observes that a contemporary university is a creature of national state-serving professional needs and the ideological needs of national states. Even today, universities and other tertiary institutions are still locked into national contexts and most especially in developing countries, are state institutions. (c) It is a fallacy to talk about the globalization of higher education where social and economic inequalities are rampant. Shalom (1999) illustrates the above point based on UNDP 1999 Human Development Report: In developing countries nearly 1.3 billion people do not have access to clean water; one in 7 children of primary school age is out of school; 840 m. people are malnourished, and an estimated 1.3 billion people live on incomes of less than $ 1 per day.

Citing a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Shalom (op cit.) paints a gloomy picture of the widening gap in incomes between rich and poor. According to this study, the richest 1% of Americans earned as much after the taxes as the poorest 100 million in 1998. In the same year, the assets of the world’s three richest people were more than the combined GNP of all the Least Developed Countries on the planet, and the assets of 200 richest people in the world, was more than the total income of 41% of the world population. Between 1979-2000 the assets of the wealthiest 1% of Americans rose from 20% to 50%. As Shalom correctly argues, a mere 1% of the wealth of these 200 people could fund primary education for all the world’s children lacking access to basic schooling.

With the above kind of glaring inequalities, it is difficult to talk about globalization in general let alone globalization of higher education. The much orchestrated globalization of higher education is made impossible by the constraints outlined in the following sections.

Although advances have been made in communication and information technology, most higher education institutions in the South face critical shortage of basic communication equipment and many are not linked to the Internet. Half of the world population has no direct access to a telephone. In Africa, the situation is even more pathetic. Okuni (2000) observes that the enthusiasm for a technological revolution that is taking place elsewhere in the world, but not in Africa, is rather too optimistic at this moment in time. For example, a basic telephone line for each lecturer that is taken for granted in the West, is still a luxury in many African universities. Africa’s share of the worldwide telephone network is merely 2%. Other challenges facing higher education include internet technology. In Africa, as outlined by Okuni (op cit), this includes widespread computer illiteracy and a lack of facilities even among academics and higher education institutions.

Alliances, collaboration, and partnerships forged between higher education institutions in the North and South are one-sided and often benefit one side only. Who benefits from these alliances and the proliferation of campuses of foreign universities in developing countries? Scott (op cit) poses critical questions in this regard: Does everyone benefit from these joint study programs and research? What is the nature of partnerships, benefits and sustainability of such links and their impact on capacity building on universities in the South?

The academic mobility and international flow of students and scholars and researchers has been always one-sided with developing countries overwhelmingly sending thousands of students and scholars to developed countries. Very often, the movement of students and scholars is between developed countries. For example, 68% of US higher education students go to Europe (Open Doors, 2000). The movement of faculty and researchers from the South to the North is also eschewed with the majority of scholars from the South moving to the North in many cases for perceived material gains. Altbach and Teichler (2001) comments on mobility and exchange of students: “international student mobility remains largely a North-South phenomenon, with the majority of the world’s international students from the developing countries studying in the major industrialized nations” (p.7).

In a situation where countries and multinational corporations in the North are dominating the process of globalization, to talk about globalization of higher education is tantamount to neo-colonialism or academic imperialism in higher education. South countries have nothing to offer in the process of globalization other than receiving whatever accrues from the process. How is educational globalization different from such earlier concepts as neo-colonialism, dependency, or center-periphery? (Gopinathan, 1996:75). As the World Bank (2000) observes, many of the poorest least-developed countries are in danger of being largely excluded from the whole process of globalization, this exclusion will also apply to higher education.

Chronic Problems in Higher Education Sector in Developing Countries

The higher education sector in the South as compared to the North is affected with a multitude of chronic problems that makes its globalization impossible. According to a World Bank (2000) study, problems facing the higher education sector in South Countries include interalia:

(a) Poor faculty quality and outmoded teaching methods and equipment (b) Poor study and working conditions (c) Academic brain drain (d) Poorly motivated students (e) Insufficient resources (f) Imbalances in higher education

Poor Faculty Quality

A lack of well-qualified and highly motivated faculty even in public universities is a common problem in developing countries. Many universities and other tertiary education institutions in the South have limited graduate training programs for faculty particularly at the Ph.D. level. For example, the University of Dar Es Salaam-the oldest public university in Tanzania-in 1999/2000 academic year had 455 Ph.D. holders (53.3%) out of a total of 853 faculties although a doctorate degree is a basic requirement for university teaching. Categorizing faculty by ranks, the university had 60 Full Professors (7.0%) and 94 Associate Professors (11%) in the same academic year. It is obvious that poor faculty quality limits the level of knowledge imparted to students and their ability to generate new ideas in the era of globalization. Poor faculty quality is exacerbated by poor incentive structures.

Outmoded Teaching Methods and Equipment

As the World Bank (your implying that the World Bank is the wherewithal of teaching and learning standards here) correctly observes, rote learning and the lecture method supported by intensive use of blackboards are common scenes in many universities in the South. Many universities in the South are stocked with outdated textbooks and journals with no online facilities. These problems are totally incompatible with the virtual and electronic university, a mantra for globalization of higher education.

Poor Study Conditions and Unmotivated Students

Compared with students in the North, students in higher education institutions in the South face difficult learning conditions for study as manifested by severely overcrowded classrooms, inadequate libraries and laboratory facilities, distracting living conditions, and poor student services (World Bank, 2000). The introduction of cost-sharing and financial constraints facing many institutions of higher education in the South has compounded students’ problems.

Furthermore, in many developing countries, students spend a reasonable time outside their universities due to strikes and expulsions. Most of the students are not well motivated to learn due to poor academic backgrounds, a condition made worse by examination leakage, and forged high school certificates. (For example, in 1998, the Government of Tanzania nullified all secondary school examination results due to massive leakage).

Academic Brain Drain

Poor working conditions together with low pay and poor incentives have contributed to the rampant problem of brain drain in higher education institutions in the South. Altbach and Teichler (2001) comments: “There is also the very disturbing phenomenon of the out-migration of academic talent from regions, most notably Africa, because of deteriorating conditions in universities as well as political and economic problems” (p.8).

The problem of low pay for academics in the South has resulted into other problems affecting quality teaching and research for example, problems of moonlighting and excessive absenteeism. It is common for faculty to work as part-time faculty in several institutions or engage in other nonacademic activities to supplement their incomes in many African universities and consequently devoting little time for research and teaching improvement. Table 1 below shows annual salaries for a Full Professor in selected African countries by 1997.

Table 1 Annual Salaries for a Full Professor in Selected African Countries, 1997

Source: Adapted from: Oni, B. (2000:21-22)

Another aspect of academic brain drain is the engagement by faculty in research and consultancies that are not relevant to the needs of the countries concerned. Most often research activities in many universities in the South are funded by international funding agencies such as Ford Foundation, Rockefeller, USAID and other organizations that also set the research agenda. In most cases, research agendas set by the funding agencies are not related to research agendas of the countries concerned or their development needs. This trend underscores our earlier argument that joint research programs between North and South universities are not in themselves a reflection of globalization of higher education due to inherent imbalances in these kinds of programs.

Although developing countries contain more than 80% of the world’s population, they account for just half of the world student population in higher education, and for a far smaller proportion with access to quality higher education (World Bank, 2000). This inequality creates unfavorable conditions for globalization of higher education.

Insufficient Resources

Universities and other higher education institutions in the South have insufficient resources to carry out reforms necessary for globalization in this sector. Public expenditure on education as a whole percentage of GNP is low in developing countries compared to developed countries. For example, in 1995, Sub Saharan Africa spent 3.4%, East Asia and Pacific 2.3%, South Asia 3.3%, Latin America and the Caribbean 4.6% compared to the United Kingdom 5.4%, USA 5.2%(1990), Netherlands 5.2%, Norway and Sweden 8.1% and France 6.1% (World Bank, op cit.). Because of insufficient resources, higher education institutions in developing countries operate under adverse conditions: overcrowding, deteriorating physical facilities, and a general decline in quality teaching and research, and not to mention obsolete or abandoned scientific equipment often obtained through external donors. (World Bank, 2000 and 1994).

Global Imbalances in Higher Education Systems

Globalization of higher education is also made impossible by inevitable imbalances in higher education systems between the North and South. Imbalances are rampant in gross enrollment ratios and attainment rates, but certainly not limited to these areas. Tables 2 & 3 highlights these imbalances.

Table 2 Global Imbalances in Gross Enrollment Ratios in % at Tertiary Education Level

Source: Adapted from: World Bank (2000: 104-107).

There are also worldwide imbalances in attainment rates in tertiary education that also makes globalization of higher education elusive. (See Table 3).

Table 3 Global Tertiary Attainment Rates, 1995

Source: Adapted from: World Bank (2000: 104-107).

Summary and Conclusions

The globalization of higher education in the context of this paper is a desirable, but elusive objective to attain due: to the significant differences in purposes and objectives of higher education worldwide, social, economic, and political structures in which higher education systems operates. While in most developed countries higher education is viewed as a consumable good, in developing countries, higher education is viewed as an investment with future returns. To debate on the globalization of higher education in conferences and other international forums is easy but to define the concept and outline in concrete terms how to achieve globalization of higher education is another issue. The globalization of or globalization and higher education will certainly continue to be interesting themes in the forthcoming international conferences.

To come out with a generally agreed definition of what globalization of higher education exactly mean, we need also to find answers to the following pertinent questions:

1. Who will be in charge of the globalization of higher education process and who will be responsible in the case of undesirable outcomes?

2. What will be the impact of the process on higher education systems worldwide?

The globalization of world economies has already wrecked havoc on many poor countries in the South, resulting in economic and financial crises, unemployment, lower wages and export of jobs by multinational companies to overseas. For example, U.S. data processing companies are using high- speed data lines to ship documents for processing to low wage countries such as India and Mexico. The General Electric Co. has also shifted some of its operations to low wage countries leading to the closure of some of the branches here in U.S. (Bernstein, & Elizabeth, 2000). This is happening despite the fact that in industrial countries, 1 person in 8 suffers from long-term unemployment (UNDP, 1999).

Vargas (1996) observed that globalization has an impact on both developed and developing countries in terms of social exclusion, regional imbalances, and deterioration of basic services or nationalistic outbreaks. The succession of crises in the 1990s in Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, Russia, and Brazil, suggested that financial crises are a direct and inevitable consequence of globalization (IMF, 2001). Should we anticipate another world educational crisis as a result of globalization? The World Bank (1994) declared that higher education was in a crisis worldwide. What will be the impact of virtual and the much hyped online learning to traditional universities and faculty employment worldwide? Are these institutions going to survive and thrive amidst globalization? Corporate encroachment on the academy and the emergence of academic capitalism (Allen, Slaughter, & Leslie, 2001) are already threatening the goals and management of many universities in the North and consequently turning academic institutions into global market places and corporate ventures.

Birnbaum (2001) observes that pressures towards privatization, entrepreneurism, and corporate-style management threaten to change higher education from a market place of ideas to a market place of commerce. In this context as Birnbaum puts it, how can we preserve our professional integrity and our institutions’ purposes while responding to calls for higher education reform and globalize? Will universities need to globalize in order to survive? If so, what does that mean and how will it happen (Perkins, 1997). These questions have far reaching implications for higher education in the South. These are intriguing questions we need to answer as we search for a common definition of globalization of higher education concept.


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Reference citation:

Ishengoma, J.M. (2003 First Quarter).  The Myths and Realities of Higher Education Globalization: A View From the Southern Hemisphere. In Focus Journal, Open Forum, Retrieved Month day, year, from