Most business schools and similar institutions will probably never make themselves truly global. Gabriel Hawawini addresses some of the issues raised by his latest book
Your new book provides a critical review of the internationalisation process adopted by higher-education institutions in general and business schools in particular. What is the essence of your criticism?
The book’s central thesis is that most highereducation institutions, business schools included, must recognise that they will not be able to transform themselves into truly global institutions not because they lack resources, imagination or the will to change but because they must contend with powerful countervailing forces.
These include such things as the weight of an institutional history that firmly grounds them in their domestic setting, a situation that often requires that they focus their resources on educating local students primarily to serve the local market; organisational inertia; and the presence of explicit and implicit regulatory and institutional barriers that make radical change within academic institutions difficult to implement.
From this I argue that the truly global higher-education institution will have to either evolve from an existing institution that was born international or be created from the ground up based on a model of knowledge creation and dissemination that differs from our existing paradigms. I refer to this observation as the “de novo internationalisation principle”.
Are you suggesting that most higher-education institutions and business schools should not adopt an internationalisation strategy?
No, I am not drawing that conclusion. I am only suggesting that most higher-education institutions and business schools should recognise that they are firmly grounded in their local and regional environments.
Their leaders should not be claiming that they aim to become truly global institutions. They should instead focus on the successful implementation of an import-export model of internationalisation that calls for initiatives such as the internationalisation of the curriculum and the faculty, the creation of student and faculty exchange programmes, and the participation in international academic and research partnerships.
Any attempt to transform themselves into truly global institutions is unlikely to succeed and will divert them from their fundamental mission of educating their students and helping them become effective global citizens.
What is a “truly global” business school?
I sketch out in the book the ultimate form of the global higher-education institution, which I call a metanational institution.
It is an interconnected and integrated knowledge and learning network spanning the world and composed of complementary campuses that operate in a symbiotic mode, free from a home-campus bias and driven by a desire to learn from the world by melding together the knowledge acquired in each location to create new insights rather than teach the world what an institution has learned in its home country.
The view of the world that underlies the metanational institution is that knowledge is increasingly becoming dispersed throughout the globe and hence learning from the world becomes an imperative for a higher-education institution.
The primary reason for an institution to globalise its activities is to acquire that dispersed knowledge and fuse it together to create new ideas and more advanced knowledge – not to extend its reach to just grow its revenues and increase its size.
You say in your book that even though internationalisation is one of the most challenging academic and economic initiatives a higher-education institution can embark on, it is also one of the most frequent initiatives that heads of educational institutions, particularly deans of business schools, put on their agenda. How do you explain this “internationalisation paradox”?
There is a simple cost-benefit explanation. Announcing that an institution wants to be international is an uncontentious long-term objective that raises the institution’s visibility and signals that even though the institution is local, regional or national, it is fully aware of the international dimension of education and research and intends to engage in the process.
And because internationalisation is a multiplestep process, it can be launched with low-cost initiatives such as internationalising part of the curriculum and the student body and forging collaboration agreements with higher-education institutions from around the world.
As I mentioned earlier, these import-export internationalisation initiatives should be an integral part of any higher-education institution’s activities and are consistent with their fundamental educational and research mission. But it will not transform them into the truly global institution their leaders claim they are aiming for.
The danger is that this grand but unattainable goal will divert institutional resources that would be better used to execute successfully the import-export internationalisation initiatives.
You argue that the internationalisation process should be examined along two distinct dimensions you call “international reach” and “international richness”. What are these two dimensions?
International reach is an indicator of the breadth of an institution’s portfolio of international activities that includes attracting foreign students and faculty onto its campus to enrich the learning experience, sending its students and faculty abroad to learn from the world, launching joint degree programmes and research projects with foreign institutions, forming academic alliances and establishing campuses abroad. But having a broad international reach is not enough to become truly international.
International richness is also required. This is an indicator of the international diversity of the institution’s student body and faculty. It is measured not only by the number of different nationalities present on campus but also by the extent to which there is no dominant nationality or cultural group on campus. The real challenge here is not to attract as many different nationalities as possible but to make sure that none dominates.
So the issue of cultural dominance is crucial if an institution wishes to create a truly international environment in its programmes and on its campus?
Yes, the issue of cultural dominance is indeed crucial. It generally affects business schools based in large countries – such as the US, China, India and Brazil – that cannot admit a large number of foreign students because they must respond first to the strong demand for education from local students.
Consider a classroom in a US business school where 70% of the students are Americans and 30% are foreigners hailing from a large number of different countries. Keep in mind that foreign students enrol in a school located in the US because they want an American education not an international one. And their objective upon graduation is generally to get a job in the US not outside it.
It is not surprising therefore that they want to learn the American way of thinking and doing things and tend to adopt a US viewpoint in class discussions. They are often reluctant to share with their classmates an alternative perspective drawn from their own home experience.
I refer to this phenomenon as the assimilation trap, which could create a pernicious side-effect because American students get the false impression that foreigners think like them. This clearly mitigates the original objective of having international students in the classroom to expose the locals to different points of view.
How could this assimilation trap be overcome?
One way is to create a classroom in which there is no dominant nationality, that is, where no nationality represents more than, say, 10% of the student body. In this case, everyone is in a “minority” position and hence freer to express themselves and share their personal experiences without the pressure to subjugate their own experience to that of a dominant culture. The class should ideally be conducted by a faculty member aware of the nuances of cultural diversity and familiar with the techniques required to facilitate exchange in a multicultural setting.
This is essentially the model that many European business schools have adopted in their international MBA programmes. Interestingly, online programmes can also help overcome the assimilation trap because students joining an interactive virtual classroom remain in their home country and stay embedded in their local environment while attending their classes.
Contrary to the case of a physical classroom where students are affected by the culture and the environment of the country in which the host institution is located, students in a virtual classroom are immune from the assimilation trap when doing their group work because they can interact with one another online while they are still based in their respective home countries and work environments.
Would you say that the current economic and political climate, which you suggest may no longer favour globalisation, will eventually slow down the internationalisation of business schools?
I doubt business schools could deliver relevant business programmes without an international dimension. And I doubt employers and students will no longer demand it. I would argue that if globalisation slows down or even reverses its course, business schools will have to redouble their efforts to keep their students informed of the benefits and challenges of an open and connected world and faculty will have to continue to study this phenomenon and evaluate its pros and cons.