Internationalisation, student voices and the shock doctrine: disrupting business-as-usual

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 24 January 2011

This post complements my keynote at the 11th Teesside University Learning and Teaching Conference, held on Wednesday 26th January. There are two slideshows. The first, entitled “in solidarity”, is a rolling piece to be run without commentary at the start of the session. It presents some images of student activism across the globe, limited to the period since 1968. It intersperses these with comments from the current UK coalition government and some detail on the financialisation and privatisation of UK higher education, in order partially to describe hegemony.

This slideshow highlights that student activism against the state has been, and continues to be, met with state-sanctioned violence. In the accelerated implementation of neoliberalism within the UK, opposition is branded as outlaw or is brutalised in the kettle. As societies are disrupted by climate change, debt, food production and energy availability, there is a quickening of the transformation of the state towards an iron cage of control, in the name of business-as-usual, growth and capital. And all this is a world where, as Žižek argues, our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” Žižek queries whether it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned.” Framed by this critique of the failure of liberal democracy to humanise, and in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism, Mike Neary notes that we must question whether in education “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.”

In the face of disruption, and framed by an agenda that promotes internationalisation as a space into which UK HE can grow, steps the student.

The second slideshow is entitled “Internationalisation, student voices and the shock doctrine: disrupting business-as-usual”. I wish to ask two questions, from which spring a further set of questions, in this talk.

  1. What is the relationship between UK higher education, internationalisation agendas and student voices in a world that faces significant disruption?
  2. Is business-as-usual a viable option?


In slide 4 I highlight UUK’s response to the UK Coalition Government’s spending review proposals. It develops an argument about UK HE that demonstrates how the sector is important and an engine for economic growth. It begins to sketch a view that UK HE’s size and complexity, its networked potential to support growth, its ability to act as a motive-force, gears it to be re-focused and shackled in the name of market fundamentalism. Here, HE is about resources and the valorisation of (human) capital-in-motion, rather than the relationships between people. This is a hegemonic view of business-as-usual, further exemplified in HEFCE’s mission and the HEA’s Strategic Plan [slides 5-6]. In these documents, Internationalisation is explicitly and uncritically placed in relation to economic growth.

In slides 7-9 I highlight recent reports that demonstrate the place of UK HE in a model of neoliberal political economy, focused upon human capital in the global knowledge economy and the accumulation of capital by the UK through exports, alongside the increasing global mobility/flow/circulation of students as part of this process of coercive competition. A snapshot of current practice highlights a flow from developing nations [BRICS and south-east Asia] towards the West. Slides 10-13 highlight the current role of these nations in providing “human” capital in the form of students, counterpoised against their emerging success in Western-oriented school testing and the emergence of China as a space for the inward flow of mobile students. Importantly this is as opposed to the relative reduction of students into the USA. Is there a clash coming, or a shift in the locus of power between the USA and China in HE, as a function of the movement and re-production of transnational capital? This view is framed by slide 14, which also points out that whilst there may be differences based on the type of (non-) accredited, international activity, it is important that student migration grows faster than overall migration. At issue here is the cultivation of those likely to produce proprietary knowledge, as opposed to knowledge workers. A tied question is who will own such proprietary knowledge (workers)?

In slides 15-16 I wish to raise some central questions around business-as-usual;

  1. Is it possible to develop an internationalisation of HE that enables alien experiences enrich the curriculum and global “knowing”? (Deliberately opposed to “the knowledge economy”.) This is important in finding shared solutions to global problems.
  2. Is engagement with overseas students’ by UK HE a form of capitalist primitive accumulation, of both fiscal and human capital? Or is it tied to the transnational movement of global capital linked to corporate development?
  3. Where students entering UK HE are privileged and gain further ‘positional advantage’ in a crowded and increasingly ‘credentialised’ graduate labour market, is UK HE contributing to elitist, hegemonic positions in countries of origin? Moreover, are these positions an extension and a valorisation of neoliberal socio-cultural forms?

HE as homogenised

In slide 17 I begin to argue for a homogenised higher education, irrespective of cultural specificity/difference, with a focus on employment rather than knowing or a transformation of thinking. This view is focused institutionally in slides 18-19 by demonstrating that the international student experience is shaped [with a few exceptions based on state/financial security, like border controls] like the “normal” student experience. Such normalisation is helpful in extending a hegemonic position through the incorporation and assimilation of the “other”.

It is interesting to note that once the curriculum is brought into play, we begin to see examples of how internationalisation might enable experiential, or practical, production to occur, in the name of a transformation of mind [slides 20-21]. However, this transformative moment is almost lost in the face of the homogenised, institutional representations of internationalisation/student living that are revealed by university web-sites, whether they are grouped by 1994, Million+, Russell Group or University Alliance [slides 22-25]. This is in spite of the focus in some of these spaces for materials which underpin the development of staff, or the appearance of some student voices.

A view of HE as a convergent place for production/consumption is also revealed in the face of the stereotyped view of Asians as rote-learners, as opposed to more sophisticated, contextually-driven learners. Although, of course, we also see the same claims made about some home-based students who come to HE following their A-levels. This view that there is good [Western] educational practice that might be transferred is also reinforced by those private consultancies who are trying to engage with the rush to outsource practices, spaces and “excellence” [slide 26]. In spite of this structural, institutional position, at the level of the curriculum we see the possibility for a transformation of mind through shared, generic human experiences/stories that spill through. These need to be positioned culturally but they open up spaces for the transfer of things and thoughts [slides 27-29].

And so in slide 30 I wish to ask whether the internationalisation of HE has the possibility to be about something more radical – that it might be more humane? That it’s not just the (knowledge) economy (and efficiency) that is to be served, but that, irrespective of cultural differences, we might be able to produce something else. There is something here on power and the production of the curriculum and the world at a range of scales. Moreover, maybe commonalities are more important in a world that faces significant disruption.

However, we need to reveal how that view relates to our work with students. Work on the student voice is often seen as inclusive and democratic, and to validate specific views. It humanises our view of them because up to a point they are included in our work [slides 31-32]. At issue is whether our conversations with students offers the possibility of a radical moment in which we might crack open higher education for a productive purpose beyond neoliberal intent.

Slides 33-44 demonstrate how much work needs to be done here in engaging students with each other in the face of overtly economically-driven imperatives. These quotes from students highlight the alienating impact of money and debt on social relations, and how the cultural separation of individuals and groups is enhanced through our current focus on HE as economic engine, fuelled by debt and privatisation. This separation and alienation encourages marginalisation and views of the other. It enables the aggressive marketing of a specific way of life that is driven by capitalist work.


The next section focuses upon HE’s place in a world that faces significant disruption. These disruptions are prefigured around four themes.

  1. Control and management of flows of ‘economic migrants’/asylum-seekers: here is a view of international students as threat, as the other, unless they are holders of proprietary knowledge who become like us. This enables the dominant neoliberal position to elide the threat of domination by alien cultures with attacks on the wastefulness of the public sector and its assets, and to aggressively argue for privatisation [slides 46-50].
  2. Globalising privilege: as mobile students represent, to some extent, a ‘privileged’ selection of humans, there is a risk that ‘student switchers’ enable developed countries to accumulate human capital, and extend its hegemonic position through the ownership of proprietary knowledge workers [commonly referred to as a brain/skills drain] [slide 51].
  3. HE and post-colonialism/neoliberalism: whilst there is a flow of networks and connections between nodes in the West, and to an extent between the East and the West, there is emerging power within those on the boundaries that is challenging and radically threatening to established norms. The economic rise of the BRICS offers a central geographical space into which this clash may be escalated [slides 52-54].
  4. Against nature: climate change, peak oil, energy costs, the loss of biodiversity each threaten business-as-usual within capitalist social relations. Internationalisation threatens to take more people from countries with low ecological footprints and export them to those with high footprints, or to transfer activities in the opposite direction. And it is simply not good enough to claim that technological efficiencies will save the day, because a rise in global population and affluence will ensure that this is not possible. Deeper solutions are needed [slides 54-60].

As a result we might need to work in a more focused way at a range of scales, including within HE. We might need to revisit radically our curriculum and activities. We might need to think about limits. We might need to fight views of business-as-usual predicated upon students-in-debt as consumers-of-education. We might need to stand against technological and economic determinism and provide radical alternatives. And when we are told that capital in all its forms [financial, human, social, cultural] will save us because we will be more intelligent/flexible/adaptable, we need to ruthlessly critique the alienation, the imposition of hegemony, and the immiseration of life and labour enforced by capital in its self-valorisation and in its re-production of those social relations that imprison [slide 61].

The Shock Doctrine and HE: the place of internationalisation

Within UK HE, the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s subsequent response has turned the global economic crisis into a means to quicken the privatisation of the state, and to attempt the strangulation of possibilities to energise transformative, co-operative relations. This places HE in the vanguard of the Shock Doctrine, designed “to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy”. It rests upon, for example…

  1. The relentless law of competition and coercion [the rush to internationalise].
  2. The impact of crisis to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant ideology [student-as-consumer; HE-as-commodity].
  3. The transfer of state/public assets to the private sector under the belief that it will produce a more efficient [smaller, less regulatory] government and improve economic outputs.
  4. Lock-down of state subsidies for “inefficient” work [Band C and D funded subjects].
  5. The privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability [encouraging the privatisation of HE].
  6. A refusal to run deficits [pejorative cuts to state services].
  7. Extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt [increased fees].
  8. Controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology.

And so, internationalisation might be read as an attempt to enforce the shock doctrine as part of a response to economic crisis. It might be read as an attempt to increase the market for western neoliberal values, delivered in-part through higher education. At issue then is how shared, international values/stories might enable oppositional, alternative, meaningful social transformation to be realised.

In this, we might ask [slides 63-66]:

  • Is HE resilient in the face of disruption? Or is it disoriented in the face of shock?
  • Do our approaches to internationalisation and the place of students in HE limit re-invention?
  • How does the intimacy of commonality help us? Which co-operative projects might offer possibilities?
  • So what might this mean for student voices in HE? Can the voices of international students help HE become more resilient?

Students-as-producers of resilient HE?

Resilience is about communities and societies working to adapt to disruption. It is not about business-as-usual. It is not about mitigation. It is about engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement. It is about co-operation and not competition. And so the University might become a space for international engagement with the production of a radical, active, non-hegemonic set of experiences. The totality of our contextual experience might be analysed from a range of perspectives, in order to develop new identities and social relations [slides 67-69].

And so students and academics might, irrespective of culture, work as co-producers of a mass intellect in commons. Collaborative social relations might enable us to re-envisage the University as a revolutionary space, where knowledge is constructed not for consumption and privatization and commodification for the economy, but instead for global knowing and reimagining, and solutions to global disruptions that are not financialised. Within this approach, civil, experiential action is critical, as is critique. The emergence of activities underpinned by co-governance and co-production, focused upon praxis, are central to this approach, and in answering the question: “In the face of disruption what is HE for?” [slides 70-73].

By engaging with education as social re-production, and taking on-board the homogenous, shared elements of out life-world, we might ask:

  1. Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have? How relevant are fixed institutions/programmes in a disrupted world?
  2. How do internationalised student voices help to adapt to disruption? In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does curriculum innovation mean?
  3. Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?

A focus on business-as-usual is no help in a world that faces significant disruption. We need to begin with our students and ask them “How can internationalised student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?” For it is through their revelation of the world that alternatives may be produced.

One Response to Internationalisation, student voices and the shock doctrine: disrupting business-as-usual

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