From South to North And Back Again
by Madison Melton
According to a recent study, 5 million students travelled to another country to pursue higher education in 2014, with a projected 8 million students studying internationally by 2025. The most popular destinations at present are the USA, the UK, Germany, France, and Australia, with Canada also gaining ground in recent years. Of these students, more than half come from Asia, and many of the rest of are also transcontinental students from other non-western countries. Of course, many students also study regionally. At my own school, Rhodes University in South Africa, the bulk of international students come from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana. However, much research suggests that students who travel across continents for their studies tend to follow a unidirectional trend and settle at colleges and universities in western countries in the global north. Travel either between regions in the global south or from global north to south is still relatively rare. Many students from schools in these western countries travel to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central America for summer programmes, service trips, and exchange semesters, but very few enrol as full-time students.
From one perspective this seems self-evident. Following centuries of colonisation that decimated independent school systems and universities across the world and the promulgation of a ‘west is best’ philosophy that still echoes loudly today, it is universities in Western countries that are still held in high regard as centres of knowledge production. It is no secret that a degree from a western country in the global north can open up tremendous job opportunities in students’ home countries, and for students from these western countries themselves there is often a practical and legitimate fear that qualifications from elsewhere won’t be recognised.
At the same time, the current obsession with western higher education also seems rather absurd. Tuition on these continents is usually higher than anywhere else in the world, and this is particularly true for international students. In Europe non-EU citizens are usually required to pay a hefty international surcharge, and in North America international students are much less likely to receive financial aid and scholarships, forced to foot a bill that has reached up to US$70,000 at the most expensive schools and is still climbing rapidly.
At the same time, many countries like China, are eager to recruit international students to form partnerships overseas, and generous scholarships are available. This often includes an additional year at the beginning of a students’ studies to focus solely on language acquisition before joining Chinese peers in a lecture theatre. Yet learning a foreign language other than English is not even a requirement in many places, where, similar to many European universities, many programmes are now offered in English in order to produce more internationally recognised research. Even in countries where international scholarships are more limited, university tuition and the cost of living often remains much lower than in many western universities, and even factoring in an international surcharge and annual flights, education can still be a fraction of the cost for those who have the resources to consider this luxury in the first place.
Yet the question remains, does a fraction of the cost mean a fraction of the quality? On TIME’s World University Rankings 2015-2016, only nine of the top one-hundred universities in the world were located outside of North America, Europe, and Australia, and all of these nine were located in some of the wealthiest Asian countries: Singapore, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan. However, rankings on their own are based on very specific criteria and are not always representative of the experience inside the classroom. I suspect a real answer about quality is that it varies wildly. Rhodes University in South Africa where I study does not even make the top 800 on TIME’s list. However, I spoke with a friend who studied here for a semester about his experiences. Although between the two of us we have attended three other more highly ranked universities in Europe and North America during our academic careers, we nonetheless agreed wholeheartedly that we had not worked so hard nor learned so much at any of these other schools than we did at Rhodes. This is hardly a representative anecdote, but I do believe that the playing field is far more complex than it is made out to be.
However, I want to suggest that there is an even further and more important reason than the financial to study at a university in a non-western country and/or a country in the global south. My education at Rhodes has taught me that there is an entire discourse in higher education spaces across the world rejecting a colonial understanding of non-western countries that is still widely perpetuated in the global north. This dialogue is not only discussing but actually reimagining the educational space and the possibilities for a more equitable global economy, and dialogue is one that I feel that much of ‘the west’ is largely unaware of, or at least has not fully integrated into its purview. The global south is where westerners traditionally go to teach, but in fact I think it is where people need to start going to learn.
Of course, I am operating under a tremendous number of assumptions here. The first is that despite being more affordable than western countries, almost any kind of overseas education is tremendously expensive and out of reach for the majority of the global population. A strong grasp of English or another language is also almost always a prerequisite, and as a native English speaker I am tremendously privileged that my mother tongue gives me access to such far-reaching opportunities. For students of Law, Medicine, and other degrees that have nationally specific qualifications, studying elsewhere can certainly limit future possibilities for students to work in their home country or some third party country that might be of interest and might simply not be feasible. Finally, after further reflection, I’m not sure if what I’m suggesting is part of the discourse of decolonising or in fact a strange sort of turn-around of the colonisation process.
To explain, an international presence is something that universities across the world are actively seeking, recognising the benefits of diverse global experiences on their campuses and the wonderful contributions this can lend to research and discussion. From a more long-term perspective, more international students also increases possibilities to expand influence in the global economy. However, in many places, South Africa included, there is also a large effort being made to devise curriculums and research that are precisely and intentionally moving away from western discourse. This is something I struggle with as a student from the United States in South Africa. On one hand, a more genuine global recognition of non-western universities and those in the global south is an essential component of decolonising, and I believe this would necessarily disrupt the present unidirectional flow of students and perceptions about sites of knowledge production, with more students staying in their own countries and regions by choice and a more equitable flow of students traveling abroad to study. However, on the other hand, people like me have been travelling to places like South Africa for centuries and there is now an opportunity for former colonies to reconstruct new possibilities without the input of those from my side of the world.
Where does this leave me?
I believe in international education. So much so that it is likely something I will dedicate my professional life to, and I believe strongly in not just expanding opportunities but disrupting present discourse about what kind of opportunities exist in what kind of places. If you have the available resources and are planning to study a degree that is without specific professional qualifications, remain open to all the possibilities. Research, find out which places are actively seeking international students and which places are more ambivalent. Consider this in a global, economic, and historical context. Get excited. Disrupt traditional flows of knowledge, but do it in a way that doesn’t simultaneously perpetuate them. Define your comfort zone and then refuse to stay inside it. Refuse to let others’ perceptions about what a ‘real’ university education looks like limit your scope of possibilities. Finally, and most critically, remember that no matter where you go you are there to learn.