What should ‘international education’ look like?


Next week, delegates from across the world will gather in Cambridge to discuss what ‘international education’ actually looks like. Tim Oates describes the debate and some of the questions that will be tackled.

International education has an amazing history. But if it is to continue to develop productively we need a global dialogue to determine exactly what it means and what it should include in different contexts.

“International education”, the idea of knowledge being created in one place and then transmitted through scholarly institutions across a very, very wide geographical area, has an incredible pedigree.

Look back and you will see the movement of scholars throughout Europe going back to the Middle Ages. We are now doing it in different ways, but the idea of this creation of knowledge and then its dissemination is something that began with human civilisation.

What’s happening now is a change in the international character of education and some of that change is happening quite quickly. 

Some of it is driven by economic factors. It is clear that the advanced state of international economy we are currently in is invoking forms of trade, forms of communication and forms of exchange that we have not seen previously.

Accompanying this economic development is migration of labour and migration of capital – ideas and markets all are changing and shifting. Education is having to change to meet these economic and societal factors. It is also having to change to meet the acute recognition of inequalities in educational opportunity and attainment; the kinds of things that we see as dysfunctional, such as conflict between people and conflict between nations.

For everybody to participate in a global economy we need to ensure that education is equitably distributed. It is about life chances and it is about getting skills embedded the right way across the world and not just concentrated in a few centres. 

This issue of the relationship between internationalisation of education and globalisation is playing out differently in different societies. I was in Japan recently and the government there is looking at how it can incorporate an understanding of development education in the national curriculum for all, because they see Japanese youth as being somewhat insular. 

These young people are entirely adequate in terms of being able to grasp key aspects of foreign languages, numeracy, sciences and so on, but what the government feels that they lack is an empathy and understanding of other cultures.

We have seen a dramatic rise in nations’ development of national curricula. One thing that’s absolutely critical to recognise is that in every national curriculum there are many subjects, many themes and many issues competing for space. There’s just too much to put into the curriculum for schools and for young people, so an international agenda has to compete alongside so many other things jostling for space in terms of the domestic agenda.

In England, for example, modern foreign language isn’t as widely studied by young people as perhaps it should be to enable their international mobility and their understanding of other cultures. Increasing the uptake of modern foreign languages would be good for them, and it would be good for the economy to have both those skills and that understanding.

With these many competing needs one really does have to produce a rationale for including any aspects of international education into a national curriculum. It has to be legitimated, it has to be evidenced.

In order to get a greater understanding of what the purpose of international education actually is, what should be included and what kind of space international education should assume, we at Cambridge Assessment decided to run a conference on the subject.

We recognise that there are different rationales in different settings around the world. But I don’t see this as being about looking at all the common elements across the globe leading to an absolutely common curriculum for everybody. What we need to do is to discuss the differences that are emerging in different national systems and the different pressures that are being exerted on an international education.

In discussions of curriculum around the world, there are very different priorities regarding “subject priorities” and balances between different elements of knowledge, skills and understanding. Some cultures emphasise study of history as a key priority – there is a tradition of Native American educational thinking emphasising the role of historical thinking in both accumulating knowledge and generating new knowledge.

Social cohesion is emphasised strongly in different systems, but with very different ways of approaching this in the curriculum. 

For many liberal humanists, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths subjects) is a priority for personal and national economic wellbeing – but with the humanities jostling for position. 

How you locate vocational education in general education increasingly is a critical issue for many nations.

This is not all leading to a bankrupt drive to “sameness” in curricula. It is intended to promote a vibrant debate about purpose, design, effectiveness and decision-making. We believe that things are moving fast in education, and are being pushed by complex pressures. Sharing rationales and issues may help domestic decision-making as well as international developments.

There are different interests at play: individuals whose life chances will be enhanced by internationally informed approaches to design and management of curricula; communities and national economies which will benefit from greater access to knowledge and skills; international organisations – profit and not-for-profit – whose activities cross national boundaries, requiring international mobility in workers as well as location where skills and knowledge are enhanced.

Are these necessarily in tension? Are there tensions around aim, content, form, management of education? Some or all of these? Can interests and forms be aligned to the benefit of all of these different levels and players?

So different cultures emphasise different elements of curriculum. Now, in that is there an ineluctable march towards the same body of knowledge? No, far from it, it’s quite contested, so we need to discuss what we want to achieve.

This doesn’t assume world government, it assumes a dialogue of what an international education actually consists of. It is something we look forward to discussing with delegates from around the world at our conference.

  • Tim Oates is group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment. He has advised the UK government for many years on both practical matters and assessment policy and chaired the Department for Education’s recent review of the national curriculum.
Further information
The International Education: Interpretation, Importance and Impact conference takes place on Wednesday, October 15, at the University of Cambridge’s Downing College. Hosted by Cambridge Assessment, it will bring together more than 140 education experts from across the globe, including education entrepreneurs, headteachers, academics and economic experts, to talk about the challenges and opportunities that education without borders presents: www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/conference2014


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Claim Free Subscription