Can Less Government Funding Mean More Internationalization?

Mar 22, 2013 9:07:23 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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Introduction: The reality of government

The question itself is (at least in the Western world) based on a profoundly false premise: The notion that there is something significant called “government funding” that is targeted at internationalizing students is already deeply archaic. Where, for example, is the heralded Simon Bill? The reality is that the dregs of government funding (where they exist) come, inevitably, with bureaucratic caveats that stifle innovation and creativity.

Government has, in practice, never been remotely interested in what we mean by internationalization. Internationalization has meant to them, variously, invading other countries and/or recruiting overseas students who can pay inflated fees so as to keep ailing systems afloat. I know that colleagues will raise the inevitable cry of “What about Erasmus?” The reality is that Erasmus (however noble) was never about real internationalization. The object of Erasmus was/is to create/re-create an idea of Europe in the minds of the young. The agenda was essentially political and the aspirational outcome: Europeanization, not internationalization.

Beyond the inflated rhetoric and impassioned alliterative spittle, beneath all the comforting assonances, governments are, almost without exception, profoundly skeptical about internationalization (unless it is about dollars, pounds, rupees, yen or euros). It means, God helps us and perish the thought, probably allowing more (even more) foreigners in to the country which is, of course, deeply unpopular with the electorate. Indeed, as of now, the UK government, for example, makes no statistical distinction between economic migrants, refugees and international students.

In short governments are almost without exception: conservative, parochial, distrustful of foreigners, and opposed to cosmopolitanism.

What funding means: the example of Job

Where there is some level of government funding it is accompanied by dense and frequently impenetrable bureaucracy, excessive control, and profound suspicion. For the successful recipient (should they live to see the end of the application process) it induces laziness and dependency.

As in most things in this life, “The Book of Job” (King James’ version of course) offers helpful metaphorical connections. Job, beset by woes (not all of them connected with government funding) comes to understand the problem of dependency:

Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground and … said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. 1: 20 -21

Within the metaphorical potential of this anguish, Job’s Lord might be seen as an expression of government intervention (which certainly acts in mysterious ways and in the face of which Job is a helpless victim). What emerges is the following: Job was living in relative peace and contentment in the Land of Uz enjoying his government funding. Suddenly, as is reported, “behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness” (Job 1: 19) and he lost his funding. As a consequence, he is grief stricken prostrate, bald, and immobile.

The moral of this tale is simple: the government gave and we became complacent and dependent; the government “hath taken away” and all we can do now is howl at the moon.

The private sector

To achieve real momentum for internationalization we need, as a necessary pre-condition, a reduction in government intervention, influence and control. In case you think that this is slipping painfully close to the ghastly Thatcherite and Reaganite view of government, let me remind me you that it was the great radical thinker, Thomas Paine, who wrote: “That government is best which governs least.”

We need to empower the private sector, reduce restraint and bureaucracy, let loose the power of innovation. What we need from government is light regulation not ham-fisted control. The limited and primary purpose of regulation should be to protect the “consumer” from the worst excess of capitalist greed: Enronisation, Lehmanism.

I know that for many of you the idea of the empowerment of the private sector is about as welcome to you as boils were to Job.

But let me simplify.

Bad and good

There are only two relevant categories when it comes to internationalization and the agencies that hinder or assist development:

Category one is ineffective, burdensome, bad. In this category are governments, some universities, and some agencies (public and private).

Category two is effective, innovative, good. In this category are some universities (who are either private or act as if they are) and some agencies (mostly private).

Conclusion: the historical perspective

In distant days the government became involved in education because the Church was making such a mess of it. Over the following few hundred years the function of making a mess of it became shared between government and Church. To avoid making a mess of it, we propose that government become less and less involved or, as the unfortunate Job complained to the government funding agency in the land of Uz:

I have heard many such things: miserable comforters are [1] ye all. Shall vain words have an end? How long will you vex my soul and break me in pieces with words (16: 2)

When it comes to internationalization, government is, indeed, a miserable comforter. The less it meddles, the better. This is much too important a matter to leave to politicians!


[1] Job’s emphasis