Let’s not internationalize but postnationalize universities

An empty lecture hall at the University of California, Berkeley. Picture: Flickr / Michael Moore (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Lukuaika: 2 min. 

For Finnish universities the language of internationalization is at the top of the agenda. It is strongly and vocally promoted by the university leadership, the ministries, and interest groups.

In these discussions, the idea of internationalization is understood in a rather backwards way. It is often treated as a synonym for something foreign – a foreign country, or a foreigner, essentially something that cannot naturally occur in Finland.

Simply put, internationalization is thus assumed to take place when a Finnish person goes abroad or a citizen of another country spends time at a Finnish university.

Beyond this, we hear very little discussion regarding the specific content of the concept of internationalization. This is a very curious thing indeed within the university context itself. Social sciences in particular have devoted much intellectual energy to problematizing the notion of inter-national and its derivatives, and offered alternatives to it.

For a convenient example of this simplistic understanding of internationalization, one need look no further than the Finnish Ministry of Education’s funding model for universities. It now rewards universities for the number of Master’s and Doctoral degrees that foreign nationals (ulkomaalaiset) have completed and also slightly more generously for the number of foreign nationals within their research and teaching staff.

And when the ministry rings its bells, the universities’ leadership salivates. It produces statements declaring that the recruitment of ‘foreign’ scholars is crucial for the development of universities. There have also been cases where an applicant’s citizenship is listed as a recruitment criteria.

What concerns us here is not only the fact that this way of understanding the spatial character of academic life is quite archaic, it is also detached from academic realities.

Of crucial importance is also the fact that when internationalization is understood in this way, it could easily become a breeding ground for different forms of discrimination and scapegoating. It creates unnecessary divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between ‘native’ Finnish and ‘foreign’ staff, and thus posits them as competitors, rather than co-workers. Furthermore, in the current climate, this has the potential to add fuel to an already politically charged migration debate in Finland.

Additionally, the idea that it is acceptable to make profit calculations on the basis of an individual’s nationality or citizenship, essentially means that academia is playing a very similar game as The Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), in its racist and tendentious piece of ‘research’ about the costs of immigration.

Taking a step back to see the bigger picture, what if we just dropped all this talk of internationalization and tried to imagine the university in postnational terms? This would mean thinking beyond nations and their interrelationships, and treating individuals as members of a genuinely global academic community. For us, academia is a place where people do not identify themselves as citizens of particular nations. Citizenship, as a form of social closure, does not resonate with the spirit of the academia.

We would like to see our universities serve critical thinking, truth, knowledge and humanity – values that do not have nationality or citizenship, and therefore are truly universal. After all, the Latin word for university (universitas) stands for ‘a whole’, as well as for a ‘community’ of teachers and students.

Anni Kangas, Anitta Kynsilehto, Ov Cristian Norocel, Elisa Pascucci, Saara Särmä & Cai Weaver are academics who have varying backgrounds and have worked or studied at universities across the world.

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