International higher education development: unfolding the field

This paper is a summary of my recently completed PhD thesis. The project set out to critically examine the field of higher education development, as one which is overly focused on and regulated by socio-economic inequality and welfare, and determines educational purpose in poorer, or ‘developing’, countries accordingly. My question was whether mainstream development approaches to higher education are really contributing to the provision of more equal education services, or whether they risk reintroducing inequality by treating the priorities of poorer countries differently. In short, do development approaches actually hinder higher education in poorer countries, not least by trying to ‘envelop’ them within globalising theoretical discourses and agendas? Part of the question, then, involves looking at whether others are able to bring their own educational values to the global higher education table, or whether understandings of the purpose of universities are still governed by a fondness for Western traditions or market demands. To allow for the possibility of the former, some of the latter’s grip needs to be loosened, if the contributions of all are to be valued equally. Development is seen less as universal progress applicable to all, but contextualised, a process of ‘unfolding’ from one’s own situation. The role of education is to see that that ‘unfolding’ occurs participatively and responsibly.

To investigate whether there are educational values or purposes common to universities globally irrespective of socio-economic imperatives, I began the study with a historiographical look at their growth in terms of both ideas of its purpose, and how purpose is realised in actuality. I then traced the emergence of the discourse of international development, and the role that higher education has come to play within it, showing how the field of international higher education development has simplified the notion of university purpose for its own devices. The thesis then looked at underlying assumptions about human nature, common to both transcendent ideas of university purpose as well as the development discourse. To avoid the limitations of these assumptions, I argued that a theoretical approach is required that can engage with questions of hybridity and multiplicity in both the history and future of universities, without reducing those questions to abstract ideas. The approach I propose draws upon the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose ideas about dialogue and answerability help to understand how the contingency of the local and the generalising tendency of global discourse can be brought into discussion.