November 2, 2012, by Sean Matthews

Shooting Elephants on the International Branch Campus I

I have recently become preoccupied by two elephants. The first is the ‘elephant in the room’: the enormous problem which everyone knows about but which no-one wants to discuss because it is too vast even to conceive or articulate, much less resolve. Let sleeping elephants lie. The second elephant is the unfortunate beast in George Orwell’s short and moving essay, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in which he describes his experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma, examining the determinants which led him first to shoot an elephant,  and then to resign his commission and commit himself to anti-imperialism.

These two elephants are a way of bringing into focus some questions about transnational education, about internationalization and the ‘International Branch Campus Experience’, which are too often occluded or ignored in our day-to-day teaching, management and organizational discourse – at least, in my experience of working at Nottingham’s branch campus in Malaysia, and in engaging more widely in debates about cross border education. We certainly need upbeat and optimistic presentations, highlighting the positive aspects of these processes and boldly expressing our values and strategy, but we must also be more attentive to a range of issues in our institutional culture, our pedagogic practice and our administrative model if we are genuinely to fulfil the high ideals and expectations which many of us associate with internationalization and education.

Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus is young in a number of ways. The first intake of students was only in 2000. In 2005, we moved to our current location, in the countryside outside Semenyih, some 40km to the south of Kuala Lumpur town centre. Many of the schools on campus, particularly in the Faculty of Arts of Social Sciences (itself only established, bringing together a number of disparate units, in 2010) have been there just a few years – my own, the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, graduated its first group of students in 2012.

Higher Education in Malaysia is also itself in many ways young (just as the country itself is young). The country’s first university, Universiti Malaya (UM), was founded in 1949, in British Singapore, at the end of the colonial era, reproducing British academic and institutional models (UM was established in Kuala Lumpur in 1962). The development of a mass higher education system is an even more recent, and rapid, phenomenon, driven predominantly by the 7th, 8th and 9th Malaysia Plans (1996-2000; 2001-2005 and 2006-2010), as the government placed the swift expansion of an international higher education hub as a key component of its ambition to move from a developing to developed nation by 2020. The Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education was only established as recently as 2004.

There is another, equally significant, way in which the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus is a ‘young’ campus. The average age of our academic staff is low-mid 30s. This is a university with a lot of bright, early career academics, as well as masters and doctoral students, and they are drawn from over 40 different nations. We have a brilliant, dynamic Early Career Research Network. Our relative lack, in some fields, of the usual cadre of mid-career academics, let alone the band* of senior professors whom one would expect to find in more established institutions, means that there is considerable scope for young academics to innovate, to experiment, to take forward initiatives which might be difficult to pursue in the more settled or hierarchical environments of older universities (even our own UK campus).

All in all this is a potent mix – young campus, young staff, young institution, many nationalities and backgrounds, all in a young nation which is itself in the throes of unprecedented, accelerating change. This is a very distinctive, and often very challenging, experience. We might even argue that the very lack of extensive experience means that this ‘young’ campus carries less baggage, is more properly open to the development of an ‘emergent’ form of internationalisation, a new and hybrid mode of engagement. But the danger of that argument is that we ignore or overlook the lessons of history.

Many of the areas of immediate, day-to-day concern at an international branch campus are indeed the conventional, staple material of academic and policy debates in a wide range of research, management and policy contexts, but they too often become taboo subjects, become the ‘elephants in the room’, once discussion turns to our own institutional practices and organizational culture. We don’t want to ‘wash our dirty linen in public’. We mustn’t talk about – in the idiom of the Malaysian government – ‘sensitive issues’ which might inflame or incite conflict. Junior members of staff and postgraduate researchers are concerned that ‘senior management’ might disapprove of ‘dissent’. Our local partners and collaborators might be upset. Colleagues and co-workers might lose face (never underestimate the importance of ‘face’). We might even find ourselves subject to government censure – Malaysia’s policies concerning Higher Education are notoriously conflicted, reflecting the tussle between liberals and conservative in the ruling coalition.

Nonetheless, just as in any university, colleagues routinely lament the dominance of neoliberal and managerialist ideology, the commodification and marketization of knowledge, and explicitly raise the intensification, in the international campus context, of problems around academic freedom; censorship; human rights; cultural difference; quality assurance and language. These issues are readily generalized, and there are a number of familiar ‘positions’ available in the debates. These elephants are quite familiar.

There were also, however, a number of elephants on campus which are much more rarely discussed openly and far more difficult to herd. These are the elephants of race; sexuality; elitism and privilege (economic, intellectual); religion; UK-centricity; relations between Nottingham’s own campuses; classroom politics; organisational culture (particularly treatment of different staff groups, modes of ‘leadership’ – always a thorny area in universities); unionisation (there is none); lack of staff social spaces; management styles; and the myriad discrepancies between our rhetoric/brand and the reality on the ground. As I will explore in a companion piece, ‘Boiling Frogs on the International Campus’ (about how we measure change, and success, in our internationalisation), we need to be wary of being too pessimistic or negative – the campus is a work in progress, there is much to applaud – but what is clear is that colleagues feel strongly about the lack of institutional spaces or frameworks for the discussion of these issues.

Unlike real elephants, the metaphorical elephants on the international campus are well able to breed: indeed, they proliferate. Does British ‘political correctness’ and anti-racism policy actually prevent the institution’s seconded senior staff from confronting the openly and explicitly race-based politics of identity and work in Malaysia, which impact at every level of experience? In a state where muslim religious conservatism and Malay racial exceptionalism (ketuanan melayu) is central to the ruling coalition’s rhetoric and policy, how can a cosmopolitan and secular university with close links to senior government figures, partnered with a major Government Linked Company (GLC), retain integrity and autonomy? What might be the impact of regime change, or the privatisation of our local partner, on the campus’s future? Why, after ten years, has UNMC still not appointed a senior Malaysian academic to its Management Group (which, in terms of academics, remains strikingly white, male and British, in contrast even to Nottingham’s UK Management Board)?** Is the financial and organisational model of UK secondees combined with ‘local’ appointees sustainable in ethical, economic or managerial terms? Can the competing or contradictory interests of different staff groups be harnessed – be led – in a positive way? What part will staff play in defining the future strategy and shape of UNMC?

In the second part of this blog, I’ll explore how Orwell’s experience with the elephant might help us begin to face up to these troublesome beasts…

Dr Sean Matthews is currently seconded from The University of Nottingham, UK as Director of Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. With Professor Christine Ennew, he coordinates the Knowledge Without Borders Network.

*A prize is offered by the author for the best collective noun to describe a group of ‘senior professors’.

** From 1 January 2013, Professor Christine Ennew, Nottingham’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Internationalisation, will take up the role of Provost at UNMC.

Posted in GlobalisationHigher EducationInternational campusesInternationalisationMalaysiaPost colonialismResearchTransnational educationUncategorized