February 1, 2013, by Sean Matthews

Shooting Elephants on the International Branch Campus II

In the previous post I began the work of facing up to the existence of some elephants on the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The first group of elephants were the metaphorical ‘elephants in the room’, those sensitive and intractable issues about life on the international campus which we all know but rarely discuss. The second elephant was the subject of George Orwell’s essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’.

One of the reasons the elephants-in-the-room do not get much of an outing in the minutes of school meetings and internal management documents is that it is not at all clear how they might be discussed, what might be the appropriate mode. We don’t have the shared language or space in which to talk about them. It may not even be that there are direct pressures on us not to talk about these things, but rather that we are uncertain as to the proper language and concepts with which to frame them. And this is where my second elephant, Orwell’s elephant, trumpets its presence. Perhaps Orwell’s essay, in both its form and its argument, might offer us a lead.

Orwell’s essay is useful to me because it brings into focus the biggest elephant of all, Imperialism, and because it suggests further means of articulating and understanding the issues. This is not to draw simplistic parallels between the work of Empire and international higher education (though I do have colleagues both here and in the UK who make that association, and they must – and can – be answered), but to argue that the resources of postcolonial histElephantory, theory and criticism must inform our thinking, now, about the branch/international campus experience, about the system of internationalisation. System is the key term, emphasizing the need to connect up the disparate areas, disciplinary and experiential, academic and administrative/managerial, of our practices. Postcolonial theory and criticism is a large body of work, engaging with Empire and its legacies through history, theory, epistemology. It intersects with thinking in a range of disciplines about globalisation, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism. However, research and policy in internationalisation and globalisation, for understandable disciplinary and pragmatic reasons, tends to engage in only limited ways with this rich and important field. The writing of Fazal Rizvi is one important example; my colleague Simon McGrath, coming from an Education and Development background, also has crucial things to say; there is an emergent body of work concerning the history of colonial education, of which Tamson Pietsch‘s writing is a great example. Orwell’s account of his experience in Burma is useful because it is at once individual and in important ways collective, he implicates both himself and his readers in the actuality of the multiple, uneven relationships of power and knowledge at an historically critical moment.

Orwell was concerned to expose and explore the realities of imperial power, the damage it does to both colonizer and colonized, the shaping (distorting) impact on our identities. We cannot ignore that Britain was a dominant force in Malaysia for well over a century before independence, and that the postcolonial settlement here is a contradictory and unfinished process which is still powerfully determined, in myriad ways, by Britain’s actions (and by the ways in which those actions are represented). Playing the ‘imperialist’ card may seem an easy and irritating gesture, an avoidance of ‘the real issues’ in everyday efficiency and competence, but it is an unavoidable element of the contemporary structure of feeling here, our campus structure of feeling, and we ignore it at our peril. Delivering a ‘UK Education’ in Malaysia is not a disinterested business or an uncomplicated civilizing mission. It sits in a powerful tension with the Malaysian people’s economic development, nation-building and politics, and with the identities and aspirations of our students and our staff – students and staff from 72 countries, the majority of which were subject to the processes colonization.

There is a further, equally important, but very practical, way in which the experience of Empire – exemplified here in Orwell’s experience in the Colonial Police – offers us a resource and an example. Those who cannot remember the past, as George Santayana famously remarked, are condemned to repeat it. It was only in the 1920s that the British Empire’s diverse educational activities began to receive any level of coordination and direction (the work of the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies from its inception in 1929 to the end of Empire alone is a critical research project awaiting its researcher), but there are remarkable archive resources exploring many of the questions and issues which we face today. The British Empire in India, in particular, generated unparalleled documentary evidence relating to the challenges of cross border and transnational education. The idiom may be different, but the political and intercultural questions endure. German, Turkish, Russian and Portuguese imperial records offer similarly extensive records for comparative study. It is striking how often Nottingham’s international campus activities (and indeed those of the other 200 or so campuses which have been established around the world in the last two decades) are characterised as unique, unprecedented or exceptional. From one point of view that characterisation has force – but one wonders, at the same time, quite how naïve or ignorant such a view might be. Much of the discussion one reads of transnational education deals only with the acceleration of these trends from the 1990s onwards, overlooking the waves of transnational education which stretch back, quite literally, thousands of years, many of which have left important traces. The association of education with the economic project of Empire is longstanding. Developing and middle-income nations such as Malaysia are in no doubt that the expansion of Higher Education is a core requirement of their drive to achieve developed nation status. Examining more closely the implications of this rapid, global extension of a primarily ‘western’ model of Higher Education, in a predominantly privatized, market context, must also involve the review, across a much longer perspective, of the many different forms and strategies of transnational education which have preceded us.

There is one final, and more personal, aspect of this Orwellian elephant I would like to touch on. Orwell movingly describes the traumatic alienation involved in his job as the ‘representative’ of powerful interests (Empire, Colonial Power, Whiteness, Capital), interests with which he had already lost all sympathy. He had already, in fact, decided he wanted to resign his commission before this episode took place, the miserable experience with the elephant confirms his resolve. He articulates painfully and clearly the essential contradictions of imperialism’s ‘civilizing mission’. For my purposes, Orwell is a telling example of a person trying to place their own activity within a broader historical and ideological context, reaching for tools and perspectives beyond the hegemonic instrumentalist or managerialist justifications of our moment: that example is an enduring one. Only today I had the privilege of attending, here at UNMC, a bold, broad lecture by Michael Burawoy concerned to delineate sociological patterns across the myriad new social movements which have emerged across the globe in the past few years. He concluded his talk with a powerful challenge to us all, as academics, to consider more fully the current, global processes of the commodification and appropriation/instrumentalisation of knowledge in which we, in universities, are inextricably implicated. His words evidently resonated with my colleagues in the audience, and the very fact of such a collective recognition of those issues, across the disciplinary and national borders we otherwise embody, is perhaps the best, and certainly more upbeat, note on which to end this piece. Orwell writes, early on in his piece, that he felt ‘young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East.’ At the very least, now, as a not-so-young, ill-educated Englishman in the East, I do not have to think out my problems in utter silence.

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

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