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The challenges of global education



Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today, and for the opportunity to share with you some reflections on the challenges facing education in the era of globalisation. I do so against the background of the extremely interesting and challenging address presented to us yesterday by our host, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud.

Let me highlight three key messages from the Chief Minister’s address which seem particularly important to me:

first, that globalisation, along with the modern information and communications technologies which are driving it, is radically transforming our societies, economies and political systems;

second, that a key characteristic of the current wave of globalisation is the vital importance of knowledge. Now, far more than ever before, knowledge truly is power, and it is for this reason that education as the pathway to knowledge – and hence to empowerment - is so crucially important;

third, that globalisation in itself is intrinsically neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is how we manage the process, and the values which are expressed through it, which is critical. The future path of globalisation, and the balance of its costs and benefits, will depend critically on the choices which we make as individuals, governments, nations and societies. Our future in a globalised world is not pre-determined: in very large measure, it will be what we choose to make of it.

I would like to reflect a little upon these important messages, and to draw out some of their likely implications for education.


The process of globalisation is not new, but rather has deep roots in human history and human nature. Looking even at relatively recent times, consider the globalising forces which were evident throughout much of the 19th century and which, for their time, must have seemed at least as dramatic as the changes which are facing us today. Of course, the globalisation of that era occurred under the influence of the colonial empires, based in many instances on coercive force. Encouraging the spread of those empires and stimulated in large part by them, there was a revolution in the volume and patterns of global trade; there were huge flows of capital across political and national boundaries; and there emerged for the first time many large, truly multinational companies. Equally dramatic were the changes in technological and global communications: the telegraph, the steam printing press and the penny newspaper, for example, all transformed the way in which information was transmitted both within countries and across national borders.

These changes, and others like them, generated a strong spirit of internationalism in the western world, based upon a belief that closer contacts between nations and new channels of communication would serve as a powerful force for global peace and development. That belief – still strong even in the first decade of the 20th century – was of course rudely shattered by the Great War of 1914-1918, whose consequences were to dominate the rest of the century.

Technology undoubtedly shifted the world balance of power, but in itself it does not fundamentally change human nature or human relations nor determine relationships between countries and cultures. New communications may draw countries closer together, in a physical sense, but that does not always make their relations more effective or more peaceful. As Professor Geoffrey Blainey has recently pointed out, most international wars have been fought between countries which know one another well, and which live side by side. It is the spread of democracy as much as anything else which ensures that neighbouring nations will live in peace.

The current wave of globalisation involves not only radical changes in technology and communications but also, at least potentially, a transformation in relations between people and a remarkable extension of individual relationships across the globe. Its full impact on the distribution of world power has yet to be determined, but that it is in part a force for diffusing power is evident, because it diffuses knowledge and information. It thereby creates an opportunity for unprecedented advances in the quality of human life and in the empowerment of individual people.

A clear lesson of history, however, is that there can be no guarantee that this potential will be realised. To illustrate, advances in communications technology offer new means of expanding access to information and increasing educational opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged in our societies, but they can equally be used perversely and destructively – as instruments of surveillance, control and propaganda. The real challenge is not primarily a technical one, of constant improvements in the speed and capacity of the technical tools at our disposal, but fundamentally a human one: of exploiting those tools to maximum advantage to the benefit of all societies and peoples.

National governments have a key role to play in raising awareness among their citizens not only of the forces of globalisation and their effects but also of the important choices which countries will need to make if they are to maximise the long-term benefits which globalisation offers. Effective leadership in this respect will increase community acceptance of the changes which powerful forces such as globalisation inevitably entail.


Education is central if we are to meet these challenges successfully. It is crucial firstly if we are to lift the standard of living of all the world’s people. For nations as much as for individual citizens, education is the primary source of the knowledge on which success in the new information economy will so clearly depend. Now more than ever before, education confers not only its traditional benefits of enlightenment and personal fulfilment but also the key to economic prosperity and higher living standards.

The potential for economic and social development based upon the diffusion of knowledge and education is both vast and unlimited. No one person’s acquisition of knowledge diminishes the value of that knowledge to any other person. On the contrary, the greater a society’s store of knowledge, the better for that society as a whole and for each of its citizens individually. Whereas other factors of production – land and capital – are necessarily limited, knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Knowledge can be shared and on being shared tends to grow further.

Education is thus far more than a pathway to economic fortune and prosperity. It is also a prime vehicle – indeed, an essential requirement – for the empowerment of a country’s citizens; for the development of its democratic institutions; for the operation of effective systems of governance; for the alleviation of poverty and disease; for the maintenance of cultural identity; and for the inculcation and strengthening of those values on which a civilised, democratic society must be based.

Without question, education is one of the most powerful instruments available to democratic governments to deal with the deep-seated problems of inequality and disadvantage in our societies. By wise and just policies governments have it in their power to use the transforming effects of education to diminish inequalities and injustice in their own societies. Education can and does make a difference: witness, for example, its powerful influence in raising the status of women in countries such as Australia, where women now enjoy at least an equal share of educational opportunities and, through education, have gained access to a far greater range of social choices and economic benefits. Legislation providing for equality of education in 19th century Australia laid the foundations of the more egalitarian society we enjoy today. In this sense, education is a key source of economic and social mobility.

Equally, it is unfortunate but true that much remains to be done to extend the benefits of education to other disadvantaged groups in our societies. In Australia’s case, for example, there remains an unacceptable gap between the educational opportunities available to many of our indigenous citizens and those enjoyed by other Australians. The Australian Government has recognised this gap and committed itself to bridging it. Our Prime Minister announced an ambitious strategy earlier this year designed specifically to achieve that objective.

The foundations of an effective education are laid in the family and at school, and it is here that the most strenuous efforts need to be made if we are to shake off the legacy of disadvantage and division in our societies. It is a critical responsibility of governments to ensure that all of their citizens – and I stress all – receive a high quality of basic education which imparts the key skills of literacy, numeracy, communication and cultural understanding so central to their future lives. It was in recognition of the importance of this goal that Australia was pleased to host the major UNESCO conference, Education for All, held in Melbourne early last year.

Although challenging and far from easy to achieve, success in this vital endeavour of quality basic education for all will bestow a range of fundamentally important benefits. It will alleviate the poverty and ignorance which are so often at the heart of human despair, social disorder and political instability. It will strengthen our democratic institutions and systems of governance, ensuring that power is based upon knowledge, capacity and rational debate. It will foster an understanding of national identity and of the value of cultural traditions and institutions. It will promote the understanding, tolerance and respect on which genuine harmony among nations is based. And it will provide the foundation for long-term economic growth and improvements in living standards.

Let me emphasise that these comments – and the challenges which they represent – apply just as much to so-called developed countries such as Australia as to the developing countries of our region and the world. They also transcend the traditional "divides" – between east and west, north and south – which often characterise discussion of these issues. The challenge which globalisation presents to national identities and values is as much a challenge for most Western and developed nations as it is for developing countries.

To illustrate, we in Australia have had to grapple with the issue of national identity and values as we come to terms with the history of the indigenous peoples of our country. We have had to deal with issues of culture and values in managing Australia’s transition from a monocultural to a multicultural society. We have had to face the fact that our educational performance as a nation has been deficient in some important respects, and especially in the educational divisions still evident between different groups in our society. And we are grappling now with the question of how we manage the educational opportunities created by the Internet revolution in a way which preserves our sense of national culture and values. Globalisation highlights these issues.

One cannot fail to be impressed by the very strong commitment to education evident in all of the Asian countries represented at this Convention. Speaking broadly, Asian governments have responded both vigorously and effectively to the very strong demands of their people for knowledge and skills, and have placed an extremely strong emphasis on education within their social and budgetary priorities. The fruits – and the wisdom – of that priority can be seen in the results of recent international surveys of educational performance, which show many Asian countries performing particularly strongly on key measures of student achievement in fields such as mathematics and science.

It is no coincidence that this major increase in educational investment by many Asian countries over the past few decades has coincided with a period of extremely rapid economic growth and a marked improvement in living standards. Less well known, but just as important, is that this rise in the economic power of East and South-east Asia has contributed to a significant reduction in the global inequality of income distribution. Within the countries of our region, moreover, the combined forces of educational investment and economic growth have ensured that real incomes have risen over time even for the poorest members of society.

Recent research by the World Bank shows a strong link between economic growth and the reduction of poverty, and supports the conclusion that economic growth generally benefits the poor whereas economic decline tends to exacerbate poverty. Even where rapid economic growth is accompanied by a widening of income differentials within a country, that effect may be temporary only, as has been the case in countries such as South Korea. It would not be right to conclude that globalisation, or the growth which it can generate, will necessarily hurt the poor in our societies. On the contrary, given favourable conditions and effective national leadership, it can be a significant source of higher living standards and better prospects for all members of society.

Let me now turn to the implications of globalisation for the educational process itself. I will concentrate my remarks particularly on some key issues of relevance to higher education institutions, but many of my comments can be generalized across the education and training sector as a whole.


Higher education has long been one of the truly international fields of human endeavour and a driving force of globalisation itself. Indeed, higher education has been an influence for globalisation, in its various forms, for centuries – for as long as people have applied their minds to the expansion of knowledge. Many of the common features of our historic civilisations owe their origins to cross-fertilisation from scientific, mathematical and technological exchanges.

Students and teachers have moved between universities in different countries for as long as there have been universities, and have formed an international community in the best sense, exchanging knowledge and ideas as they travelled. University researchers have always embraced the international perspective of their discipline, a view underpinned by a commitment to the free flow of knowledge through publication, peer review and opportunities for international study and employment. We are now also seeing students undertaking studies internationally in all education sectors - at school and in vocational education and training courses as well as higher education.

While they embraced international exchanges, higher education institutions had, nevertheless, a predominantly national perspective for most of the second half of the twentieth century. The founding of national universities was often an important first step towards nationhood, or a celebration of newly achieved nationhood, as well as a self-conscious contribution to national economic progress.

The advent of really large-scale foreign study has led to a different type of international influence, with an estimate of over one million students world-wide studying outside their own countries. The majority of these students are from Asian countries, and are studying mainly in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia.

From an Australian point of view, international students are now an integral part of Australian education, and our institutions have benefited enormously from this experience. They are more socially and academically vibrant places today than they were in the past, thanks in large part to the presence of international students. As for the student, I think most of the people in this room today would agree that study overseas is an enriching experience offering considerable benefits which are by no means limited to formal education qualifications. From a regional standpoint, the massive commitment to education throughout east and south-east Asia has been a critical element of the region’s dynamic economic and social change.

Now, however, the rapidly expanding communication and information technology sectors are providing the means for quite radical changes in the way education is understood and delivered, and unprecedented opportunities to expand access to quality education. Education can now be provided in a way which crosses traditional national, conceptual, sectoral and physical borders – hence the term 'borderless education'.

Technology is opening the way for different kinds of education that respond more directly to the needs of people working in a global economy. It introduces a level of convenience into education which more readily meets the training needs of large corporations, the requirement for more work-ready graduates and the need to maintain and upgrade skills throughout an individual’s career. People whose requirement is to gain a qualification rather than participate in the full academic experience that comes with being on campus are able to receive that education service through this technology.

The development of information technology in education delivery has proved a little like lifting the lid on Pandora's box : developments in this field have taken place with astonishing speed. Five years ago the idea of a 'virtual university' was a relatively novel one, while today it has become commonplace. A survey of 557 higher education institutions in the United States in 1999 revealed that almost 50 per cent offered at least one course within their degree programs entirely by the Internet.

The emergence of borderless education may lead us to change the way we think about the "internationalisation" of education.

For Australia, internationalisation first meant the presence of international students in our institutions who generally participated in a traditional, campus-based learning experience alongside local students. The emerging "globalisation" of education, with the potential development of mass world-wide markets for education that can be serviced from a distance using various new technological means, may change that picture. Australian universities are already beginning to reach out to students in Asia with the development of off-shore campuses which provide an "Australian" education in the student’s home country. Around 17% of international students in Australian universities are now studying at off-shore campuses.

In education, as in all areas affected by globalisation, the emergence of this new world carries significant opportunities and, at the same time, risks. There are policy choices to be made by national governments which will heavily determine the benefits that we can reap. These choices, I believe, fall into three main areas. One concerns the vital issue of equity, to which I have already referred: of ensuring that the educational benefits of globalisation are fairly shared, and genuinely improve the opportunities available to society’s disadvantaged. The second relates to issues of culture and values, as expressed in the course content and educational materials supporting new approaches to educational delivery. Last, but not least, is the vital issue of quality: of ensuring that the educational benefits of globalisation and new delivery techniques are not compromised by an erosion in quality or a loss of the strengths of traditional approaches.


Borderless education allows vastly increased access to educational resources which would otherwise have remained the preserve of a relatively privileged few. It is empowering to the communities that share in it. The Internet makes expensive scholarly journals and monographs, research data, and other reference material available to a very wide circle of users. In addition, there are fields (such as medicine) in which information can be presented in 'virtual' form, offering a valuable new teaching and learning method for the discipline. Here the term borderless education can be used in its most literal sense, of removing borders or barriers to knowledge and learning.

These are very positive developments. But we cannot suppose that this access is open to all. The term "digital divide" has been coined to describe the inequality which is developing between the "haves" and "have nots" as a result of varying levels of access to information technology. Indeed, as one observer has remarked, in the case of the poorest countries the divide is more like a "digital chasm".

Participation in the Information Age requires an expensive infrastructure which is certainly not at present equally available to everyone. It is now estimated that about 5 per cent of the world's population is connected to the Internet. About 50 per cent of adults are on-line in North America, 36 per cent in Australia and

20 per cent in Europe. Only 2 per cent or less are estimated to have personal access to the Internet in the poorest regions, such as Latin America and Africa.

These figures refer of course to personal access, but in very poor countries even access for schools can be prohibitively expensive. A way will have to be found to even out these inequities of access, for otherwise the promise of equal educational opportunities for all will ultimately prove to be illusory.

The issues go beyond access to hardware and infrastructure: there is also a major challenge ahead to tap the educational benefits of the new technologies in ways which respond effectively to the learning needs and personal circumstances of disadvantaged students. The recent APEC Education Ministers’ meeting in Singapore put this issue at the head of its agenda, with a commitment to international cooperation to address it.

Just as there are significant differences in Internet access between countries, so there are wide variations within countries which carry important implications for access and equity. In the Australian context, for example, restrictions on

broad - band access severely limit the educational benefits of the Internet in many parts of rural and regional Australia. We are currently exploring strategies to deal with this problem, which I know is shared by many other countries.


Perhaps the greatest impact of the new technologies in higher education is the way in which they facilitate truly global educational undertakings. Let me give two short examples.

This year, law students at the Australian National University are undertaking a common course in international law, via the Internet and related technologies, with counterparts from the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria in Canada. Similarly, students at the National University of Singapore are undertaking 'global classes' in international business, information technology and engineering with fellow students from Stanford University in California and the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. These are clearly enrichment activities of great value within the framework of a conventional program of study, with the 'international' element carefully chosen to add maximum value. It will only enhance the value of the education which the students in both countries receive.

However, we need to be aware that choices must be made about the curricular content of global education. The structure of the global education business means that most providers are English-speaking institutions in 'western' countries. The risk is that their educational offerings will have a homogeneity and cultural sameness about them which do not acknowledge the student's home culture. It is a major responsibility of education exporting countries to ensure that the programs they provide meet the individual needs of students.

Culture, language and values are inseparable from education, and higher education in particular must interact with, study and help develop the language or languages of the people it serves. It is well accepted, I believe, that English is the language of the Internet, and thus of globalisation. It is important, nevertheless, that the growing reliance on the English language should be compatible with the preservation of peoples’ own language. One of the greatest challenges which global education represents for multi-lingual countries will be to preserve and support their linguistic and cultural diversity, while recognising the reality and value of English as an increasingly international language.

Let me emphasise again that these issues are not unique to developing countries. For example, they are particularly important for a multicultural society such as Australia where we believe it is essential to develop a diverse educational framework supporting the maintenance of cultural identity, language, and values.


Quality assurance has been among the most persistent of the concerns expressed by critics of global or borderless education. From the perspective of the potential student, there is a real difficulty in discerning which educational programs are of good quality and offered by reputable institutions, and which are of low or uncertain quality, or being offered on the global education market for profit alone. This difficulty has been made very much greater by the fact that, in many cases, the pace has been set in Internet provision by profit-making providers who have sometimes not been over-burdened by considerations of quality assurance.

The concern with quality is a real one, even in the case of international education programs offered by more conventional means.

Australia's developing role as a provider of higher education in the global market has forced us to think very carefully about how we can assure the quality of courses, especially for those not familiar with our higher education sector. The outcome of this process has been the establishment of a comprehensive new quality assurance framework for Australia's higher education system. This framework includes:

> nationally agreed criteria for the recognition of universities, including overseas higher education institutions wishing to operate in Australia;

> guidelines for the endorsement of courses of study (including those offered 'offshore' or through an agent) as suitable for overseas students; and

> the establishment of an independent national quality assurance agency to monitor, audit and report on quality assurance in Australian higher education.

In the vocational education and training sector also we have recently established new arrangements to assure the quality of education offered by both public and private providers.

While national accreditation and quality assurance procedures are clearly essential for any major provider of international education services, they are no longer sufficient. Because students and graduates are now so mobile, regional and international cooperation will increasingly be necessary to ensure that a qualification awarded by a reputable institution in one country will be given appropriate recognition in other countries. Such recognition needs to extend beyond the educational domain alone to facilitate the practice of the trade or profession to which the particular qualification relates.

The Australian Government is working hard to develop bilateral agreements on mutual recognition with many countries. I am pleased to say that such an agreement was signed between Australia and Malaysia in 1998. Within the broader region, too, there have been efforts through APEC aimed at ensuring that the Asia-Pacific of the future has a highly capable and flexible workforce. It is essential that we work together to invest further time and effort in such undertakings.


Finally, let us remember that there have been various developments in the past which have been greeted as new dawns of one kind or another for higher education, and for education in general. Television, video and satellite technology have all been hailed in their turn as having the capacity to revolutionise instructional methods, making traditional approaches redundant. But none of them can truly be said to have done so. In the face of constant technological changes, certain elements of education (for example, the lecture and the assignment) have proved to be remarkably resilient, no matter how they are delivered. Technological developments have increased the options for educational delivery rather than replaced them.

Globalisation, however, gives education a profound and central importance. Global education increases options, provides greater choice than ever before, and has the capacity to bring educational opportunities to people who have never previously had them. In addition, global education can add enrichment to otherwise traditional programs in ways which were never previously possible, and thus lift the overall quality and relevance of education.

Whether globalised education will provide the basis for a long-awaited and successful assault on inequality and injustice in our societies, and whether it will provide the firm foundations for a democratic world respectful of the dignity of all people, depends on the policy choices we make. Globalisation still leaves the future very much in our own hands.

Thank you.


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