Internationalisation of higher education key to reducing inequalities

Updated: Feb 6

by Gilbert Nakweya


For higher education to make remarkable strides in reducing, managing and overcoming the widening barriers to social justice, there is a need for internationalisation of higher education more than ever before, according to an expert.


World Day of Social Justice

Photo courtesy of Helena Lopes


★ Internationalisation of higher education has a powerful potential to reduce barriers of social justice such as racism and negative ethnicity

★ Higher education is a catalyst for growth, poverty reduction and boosts shared prosperity that benefits the society

★ Higher education in low and middle income countries widening inequalities, an expert argues


Dr. Gregor Walter-Drop, Senior Adviser at Paradigms and an academic who has extensively published and taught in the fields of globalisation, governance, limited statehood and foreign policy analysis says that this creates "short-cuts'' between educational programmes or research agendas.


Specifically, he says, internationalisation of higher education creates links between people and social practices. This implies that students and researchers going abroad are – among other things – also exposed to different practices and the respective university policies that are against forms of discrimination based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability or religion.


“Going abroad broadens their social horizon, which typically reduces stereotyping, "othering", and discriminatory attitudes,” explains Dr. Walter-Drop.


Given that university graduates play an above-average role in shaping the future of their respective societies, he adds that international exposure is potentially very powerful to turn them into "change agents" for their domestic societies.


Globally, higher education has been seen as a unifying and universal tool that brings together people from different cultures to pursue a common goal. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the increasing demand for higher education with over 200 million students currently enrolled in institutions of higher education globally, up from approximately 90 million a decade ago.


The World Bank describes higher education as a catalyst for growth, reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity that benefits the society as opposed to an individual.

A highly-skilled workforce with ground in higher education is a “prerequisite for innovation and growth: well- educated people are more employable, earn higher wages, and cope with economic shocks better”.


This therefore implies that the benefits of higher education can be shared and help to transform societies. Individuals who have gone through higher education, adds the World Bank, are more environmentally conscious, have healthier habits, and have a higher level of civic participation.


According to the UN, the principles of social justice can only be manifested through advancement of gender equality, or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. However, it posits that social justice can be advanced only when “we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability”.


The role of higher education

Unemployment and underemployment are some of the key leading propellers of these barriers globally. The UN estimates that One in five workers still live in moderate or extreme poverty with geographical disparities being a stumbling block to access to decent work. Similarly, many workers face stagnant wages while gender inequality prevails and people are not benefitting equally from economic growth.


The UN warns that inequalities “between and among countries are weakening social cohesion, preventing people from achieving their full potential and burdening economies”.

As there are increased calls to reduce inequalities globally, higher education has been seen as an important catalyst here.


An increase in the proportion of people with higher education may reduce wealth or income inequality. Lack of skilled manpower is identified as an important factor that impedes the competitiveness of firms and the modernisation of the economy; investment in vocational and higher education is critical to address this skill gap.


But whereas higher education is an important tool for reducing inequalities, this seems to work in the opposite for the low to middle income countries. Abebe Shimeles, African Development Bank’s manager of development research division says that unemployment in developing countries is highly manifested among individuals who have gone through institutions of higher education.


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As such, Shimeles argues that expansion and massification of higher education as currently experienced in developing countries may therefore catalyse unemployment. “As access to higher education is largely limited to high earners, expansion of higher education could potentially exacerbate inequality,” argues Shimeles.


However, Shimeles remains adamant that higher education including vocational training “is important for developing countries to remain competitive; further, expanding the skill-base of the labor force may lead to lower levels of wealth inequality.” He urges policy makers in developing countries especially in Africa to promote economic modernisation by prioritising investment in higher education despite some of the arguments against the massification of higher education.


But Dr.Walter-Drop, hails higher education as one of the single strongest factors for empowering any group – including groups that are socially discriminated against. In other words, he says, education helps all groups. “Discriminatory attitudes decline with education. The non-members of discriminated groups tend to discriminate less when they are higher educated,” says Dr. Walter-Drop.


Going beyond research and publications

One of the key roles of higher education is research to provide knowledge and innovations necessary to address challenges facing the society including barriers to social justice. However, Dr. Walter-Drop argues that while studies such as sociological research on patterns of discrimination, its social determinants and its consequences is richly important, “I don't think research is sufficient to remove the respective barriers”.


He says that to date, there is a lot of knowledge and ideas on how to manage, reduce and overcome all forms of discrimination and barriers to social justice. “We actually know a lot already to make significant advancement in the fight against discrimination. I see it as an issue of policy more than as an issue of research,” explains Dr. Walter-Drop. However, he says that the thorn in the shoe of social justice is that its policies are not pegged on evidence of research. “It is an outcome of politics where interest are often not aligned against anti-discriminatory measures”.


For instance, he cites that in order to increase the turnout and the performance of girls in STEM subjects, they need to be supported and encouraged from high school to university. But this may not be realised in instances where teaching staff in the STEM field and school and university leadership are 95 percent male and the majority of them are not interested in gender equality. “This is just not an issue of research. We know all we need to know. To make it happen requires decisive political action”.


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