This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
MIAMI—As higher education globalizes, there will be winners and losers.
That idea was a strong undercurrent during many discussions here at the British Council’s annual Going Global meeting, which attracted more than 1,000 college leaders and international educators from 70 countries.
The council, the British government’s cultural and educational arm, focused on three i’s as part of this year’s conference: inclusion, innovation, and impact. The goal was in part to better understand how universities, by becoming more international, can help solve some of the world’s inequities in education, health, and other social issues.
Yet by internationalizing, universities can sometimes exacerbate those very inequities, some attendees pointed out. Specifically, concerns were raised about the spread of English as a language of instruction and about the advent of new technologies.
Teaching in English is growing rapidly around the world, said Ernesto Macaro, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Oxford. He is working with the council to study the spread of English-taught classes and how they affect the interaction between instructors and students, among other issues.
Based on his initial findings, which were released at the conference, universities want to teach in English to help prepare their graduates to work abroad and at international companies. But they also see English instruction as a way to improve their bottom line, by being able to attract fee-paying foreign students. Institutionalizing the use of English at a university also helps researchers produce papers in that language, whose publication help universities climb the international rankings.
Yet in many countries, teaching in English is a sensitive issue, he said. In a survey of British Council staff members and other education experts in 55 countries, almost 51 percent of the respondents said teaching in English was a “controversial” issue with the public. Around 38 percent said people were in favor, while the rest either didn’t answer or said the question was not applicable.
Last year the debate flared up in both France and Italy, said Rosemary C. Salomone, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York who has studied bilingual education in the United States and is now looking at the spread of English teaching overseas.
The French see the issue very much as one of “national pride,” she said.
“How could the French replace the language of Molière with the language of Shakespeare?,” she asked, describing the attitude of some in France.
Meanwhile, in Italy, the concerns center more on practical questions: Would teaching in English put some Italian professors out of work? Or hurt their ability to convey complex thoughts and hold unscripted classroom discussions?
Looking ahead, she warned that if more top institutions in Europe or elsewhere adopted English, it could build a new barrier to disadvantaged students or immigrants who are not taught English at a young age or have difficulty learning it.
The move toward English “is not a zero-sum game,” she said. “There inevitably will be winners and losers.”
Could MOOCs Reinforce Inequality?
That sentiment also arose in a discussion about massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
The online programs have been seen as a way to “democratize” education, by allowing more people in the developing world to gain access to expensive, ivory-tower classes.
Yet Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa, said there needs to be a global conversation about online education that is without “cynicism” or “romanticism.”
Mr. Habib has written about how international university partnerships often favor institutions in wealthier countries, and he said he saw a similar scenario playing out in the virtual world.
For his part, he said he worries that MOOCs will create an “unequal global education system,” in which most students in affluent countries will continue to receive face-to-face instruction, while many students elsewhere will be able to take classes only on the Internet. Instead of reducing inequality in higher education, MOOCs have the potential to “reconsolidate” it, he said.
He also warned that MOOCs could hinder the development of higher education in countries like South Africa if students and policy makers saw them as viable alternatives to local colleges, thereby potentially sapping the institutions of human and financial resources.
He called on universities in both rich and poor countries to begin a discussion of how to create online a “global academy of commons,” in which Internet ventures are not seen as ways to extend the reputation of individual institutions, but as a collective effort to broaden the reach of higher education.
During the session in which Mr. Habib spoke, MOOC providers acknowledged that they shared some of those concerns.
Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, a MOOC provider established by Britain’s Open University, emphasized that MOOCs were not a replacement for universities in developing countries but could enhance their educational offerings.
He said that the Internet, not MOOCs, is the major disruptor of higher education. And like Mr. Habib, he agreed that universities around the world—rich, poor, or in between—must grapple with the changes.
Universities, he said, need to start innovating “yesterday.”