Connections and Complexities : The Internationalization of Higher Education in Canada

2002, University of Manitoba
Kirby D.M. (editor)
ISBN 1-896732-25-9

If knowledge is power, then how powerful is "foreign" knowledge? Put differently, how powerful are those who bring us knowledge from abroad? The 12 essays that make up "Connections & Complexities: The Internationalization of Higher Education in Canada" is a must read for any manager or decision-maker who is confronted with the realities of tens of thousands of international students in Canadian establishments. The first essay sets the tone as student-researcher Calvin Bowry retells the surprises he experienced during his travel to Japan, and how little he knew about the Japanese way of life, and the country which is still the second most powerful economy on the planet. Bowry backs his claim that there is an implicit narrowness to North American teaching by referring to an assessment of the Association of International Education Administrators: in this analysis the United States emerged as a "society of striking insularity."

Bowry and a colleague then argue that Canada may not be that much different, and the tendency is ultimately to "adhere to a particular frame of reference to the exclusion or neglect of other, alternative paradigms." Bowry also cites at least three reasons why the expected exchange of culture and experiences between host and guest students is not evident as might be expected. First, he argues, faculty – as distinct from university management - have few or no resources dedicated to or budgeted for them in order to assist the international students in their learning, exchanges and "apprentissage." Second, despite the rhetoric and slogans of globalization and internationalization that universities set forth in their marketing literature, there is an important and telling gap between what is advertised and what is measured at the end of a degree cycle. Finally, he notes, the intellectual ambit of seminars and lectures remains dominated by North American students, while foreign students tend to cluster by linguistic affiliations. With statistics and poll results backing his case, Bowry concludes that far from promoting cross-cultural exchanges, universities are by and large adopting a laissez-faire attitude, largely pleased with the incoming waves of international students, but ignorant or disinterested in the wealth they bring.

University of Minnesota professor Josef A. Mestenhauser has two essays in this collection, but the first is by far the most probing in the entire work: the question he poses is why are international exchange students - both the ones who comes to North America and the North Americans who go abroad – functioning at such limited, intellectual levels? He juxtaposes this question with a page-and-half list of very concrete skills that international and "domestic" students could learn from each other, if they were encouraged to or at least solicited. As he puts it, no international student comes with a "tabula rasa" and none is an empty gas tank waiting to be filled with our knowledge, yet the structures that greet and uphold them here assume that this is all they need: an update, a catch-up session. More than any other essay in the dozen, this is the one worth pondering.

Mestenhauser has researched and published in the field since 1976 and the questions he raises shows the depth of his academic record. Ethnocentrism, he charges, is not a mere academic construct. It dominates universities management, faculty and, perhaps most importantly, host students, so that even we – in good faith – may seek to make a cross-cultural contact or exchange, we are always seeking an interlocutor who will use our won "cultural logic." Mestenhauser argues that "our knowledge is encoded so firmly that to expand it requires an intervention far more sophisticated than teaching content about other countries and cultures. Such knowledge," Mestenhauser adds, "still would be encoded within the cultural paradigm…[and] the embedded knowledge is so solid and well integrated that it functions as an autopilot…"

To win over skeptics, the researcher gives the example of the so-called "Chubais gang", former Soviet era academics and newly-reformed Communist party members in Yeltsin’s Russia who managed to persuade USAID - the U.S. equivalent of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) - and universities to grant them large sums of money based on promise to democratize Russia and turn it into a market economy in record time. Nonetheless ethnocentrism is "neither a curse nor insult," Mestenhauser argues, it is instead "the result of centuries is socialization and is a common human condition."

The Minnesota university professor also provides some dire warnings: at the moment, he writes, it is mostly Kindergarten through to Grade 12 of schooling levels that are experiencing public funding squeezes, but the cuts are inevitably headed towards higher education, universities and college. When those trends arrive, managers had better be prepared to face even more – not less - competition from global markets. What will the result be for university population ? Are decision-makers ready and adequately equipped to deal with an influx students carrying what Mestenhauser calls the "consumerist paradigm ? Mestenhauser does not think so. The existing "supermarket" model of university, where some or the basics in international curriculum is "better than nothing" may not be adequate.

Fortunately, there are solutions available, but what is necessary is the managerial will to implement them. To cement his case, Mestenhauser provides an excellent summary of the most relevant research in the field of cross-cultural training, from Piaget in the 1950s to the present. Immersion, sensitivity and an awareness of one’s own cultural strongholds and fissures are some of the concepts that faculty and staff need to inculcate into their teachings and exchanges. Further, where immersion is provided as teaching tool, that process itself contains several, further steps that deepen and complete this initial process, so popular in North American schools: incubation, evolution, insight and monitoring are the next, logical sequences of what is ultimately a life-discipline of culture and education.

International education, Mestenhauser concludes is so important that costs – evidently high – of not hiring the necessary staff and implementing the requisite strategies – would far outweigh the consequences of what he terms "international ignorance," isolationism, and ultimately the very course of international affairs. Far from alarmist, the tone of the essay is simply a call for additional research and for attention to a disturbing dynamic.

If Mestenhauser pin-points the problems in international education, Queen’s University professor Martin Schiralli provides recommendations for decision-makers. In order to find a reasonable equilibrium in the power and knowledge bases of international students and host faculty, Schiralli argues that university administrators must " explicitly engage the value of desirable ends of internalization" in order to immunize against any undesirable implicit tendencies toward cultural dominance." To reach these goals, there must therefore be an educational ethics for university administrators, one that now seems to be lacking – at least at the national level. As Schiralli points out, a teacher is "an agent of the state employed to change the way in which young people think, feel and behave."

A final essay examines the role of English as a Second Language in the university. The question posed – and answered - here is whether there is role beyond generating revenue when a university offers such courses in one, two, or three months programs. The obvious answer may be Yes, but University of Alberta English language Program Director Robert Berman believes there are other reasons, and chief among these is the reputation that the 1,500 ESL students who are trained at the U of A will take back to their respective nations. However, like the other authors in this collection Berman admits that the international students continue to function as a ghetto within the university and more must be done to assist their apprenticeship beyond synthetically learning a language. Oddly enough, foreign students’ academic marks (other than in language, that is in the degree they sought initially) are not that affected by the ability or lack of success with actually learning English. And, as American universities have already noted in several studies, quoted in Mestenhauser, this issue – the clean exchange of time and money for pure knowledge - has alarmed more than a few American university managers, some of whom believe international students should welcomed on a quota system.

The twelve essays in this collection of informal papers, each backed by several tables of international statistics, and bibliographies raise fundamentally modern question. In short, the recommendations and warnings issued in this little-known work of research are no less than a key to successful and ethical management of tomorrow’s universities.

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