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‘Borderless professors’ are the future of global awareness and soft diplomacy

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The COVID-19 pandemic vividly reminded us of the interconnected world we live in, not just in terms of how vulnerable this connectedness can make us to a virus that cares nothing for borders but also in terms of how global awareness and cooperation are more important and necessary than ever.  

This is not limited to our ability to respond to biological disasters such as pandemics. It is a key factor that also will determine how effectively we respond to other collective crises such as climate change, cybersecurity risks, human rights abuses and the state of democracy around the world. According to a recent report from the Commission for the Human Future, one of the greatest risks to human survival is a failure to understand the interconnected nature of global problems and the cooperation required to solve them. This is where transnational education and borderless professors can play an important role.  

Imbuing students with a global perspective is an objective many higher education institutions long have pursued. Traditionally, study abroad programs were the default approach for pursuing this objective, but such programs may not be a realistic option for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Moreover, the pandemic drastically cut the number of students studying abroad and this is an area that continues to be fraught with uncertainty. But thanks to technology, physically going to another country is no longer the only option for developing the global awareness that students and universities seek to cultivate. Now there is more than one way to pursue what the higher education industry calls “transnational education.” 

With transnational education, the range of benefits to consider is broader than that of study abroad. It’s not just about students from developed nations going abroad to gain a global perspective and then using that knowledge to benefit their home countries. It’s also about students from developing countries gaining access to programs that they normally couldn’t access. In an interconnected world, with interlinking problems, we cannot afford to focus only on the students in our own countries. We must also consider the importance of helping students in foreign and developing nations to gain global awareness.

There are multiple avenues to pursue transnational education. In addition to study abroad, there is the branch campus model, in which an institution — for example, New York University — establishes branch campuses in cities around the world such as Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. In addition to NYU students from the U.S. being able to attend these branch campuses, students from the hosting countries can also attend and get an NYU degree without having to cross any borders. There are potential barriers with this model — for example, professors who work and teach at branch campuses must be faculty members of the source institution. However, the numbers have grown over the years, as documented by the OBHE (Observatory for Borderless Higher Education) and C-BERT (Cross-Border Education Research Team) at Penn State University. 

A growing number of institutions in developed nations — primarily the United States, United Kingdom and Australia — are adopting the viewpoint that the quality of professors shouldn’t be determined by the universities where they are faculty members. Rather, what matters is that they can teach in English and hold appropriate credentials and degrees from accredited institutions, have relevant training, cultural and teaching skills, and appropriate institutional vetting. If they meet these conditions, these “borderless professors” can live anywhere and teach courses that count toward a degree from universities based in developed nations. 

Students in developed nations can benefit from the global perspectives that borderless professors offer without having to study abroad or enroll in a branch campus, both of which may be precarious options until the pandemic subsides. Conversely, students in developing countries can benefit by learning without the need for travel. There is also the learning that professors themselves experience from the students and culture of the countries where they virtually teach. The borderless professors concept favors mutual enrichment.

Further, borderless professors and programs allow working adults to continue their education without quitting their jobs or uprooting their home lives. Incorporating global dimensions in domestic educational settings is often referred to as “internationalization at home,” and it can be just as effective as traditional study abroad in developing students’ global, international and intercultural competencies.      

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in the growing acceptance of concepts such as borderless professors and internationalization at home, just as it has accelerated the widespread acceptance of remote work. The increasing sophistication of educational technology, itself boosted by the pandemic, also has made borderless professors a more viable method of transnational education. 

Given the increasing need for global awareness, the numerous benefits of transnational education for students and institutions in both developed and developing countries, the extended societal and economic benefits to participating countries, and how relatively easy transnational education can be with technology and borderless professors, it makes sense that governments would want to play supporting roles. The U.K. and Australian governments have supported their universities in this regard, and more recently Canada has been doing the same. Government support is virtually nonexistent in the United States, however; any transnational education happens at the individual institutional level. 

By not taking an active role to support transnational education, the U.S. risks missing out on the benefits of transnational education and falling ever behind. Many American youths, even college-educated ones, lack the global awareness and literacy to successfully navigate and compete in today’s world. Supporting transnational education would serve America’s interests in diplomacy and foreign affairs since it can be a form of exercising soft power and soft diplomacy. Indeed, this is one objective of government-supported educational programs such as the Fulbright Program.

In addition to domestic benefits, there are collective global benefits. Transnational education contributes to the capacity-building of institutions in developing nations so they can better contribute to solving global problems that affect us all.  

The good news is that, thanks to technology, borderless professors and changing attitudes about work and education as a result of the pandemic, it is easier than ever to reap the educational, economic and societal benefits of transnational education. We live in a time when this is more vital than ever. With or without the active support of their governments, it behooves universities in developed and developing nations alike to continue pursuing these programs.

Dr. Fernando León-García has been president of CETYS University, Mexico, since 2010, leading the institution to institutional and program accreditation in the United States and one of the highest internationalization rates in Mexico. He is also president-elect of the International Association of University Presidents.

Tags Higher education International education

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