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Aneta Hayes on Advocating for Epistemic Equality for International Students as an ‘official’ referent of teaching excellence.

Author of Inclusion, Epistemic Democracy and International Students​​​​​​​

The latest publication of the new UK government’s internationalisation strategy, or rather its plan for international education exports, has once again focused public attention on international students. The strategy however does not differ from the last such official policy in 2013, not least in terms of representations of international students. In both these documents, international students are represented as economic objects that can help sustain UK universities at times of financial difficulty and increased international competition. I argue in my book Inclusion, Epistemic Democracy and International Students that such systemic positioning of international students, which denies them any rights to being considered as epistemic equals (as it challenges the equivalence of different geopolitical sources of knowledge and active inclusion of those who carry this knowledge as equally qualified ‘knowers’) shapes the most dangerous conditions for their exclusion. When legitimised by the political power, as is the case of the UK strategy, such exclusion operates at the highest possible level, which then makes it impossible to challenge by people’s individual commitment to epistemic equality for all in our universities. I however have had this idea -  if the problem of intellectual discrimination of international students is mostly systemic, we need to fight fire with fire and create a different system; one that will afford knowledge production to all people in the classroom.

And this is where social science matters! Social scientists who conduct critical policy studies provide us with tangible ideas about how to change official policies to create forms of reference for universities that will ‘obligate’ them to address questions of, for instance, intellectual inequality. In the book I have presented such ideas by targeting the growing trend in higher education of ‘measuring’ teaching excellence. The focus on ‘teaching excellence frameworks’ was prompted by questions as to why, as national governments and supra-national organisations (such as the OECD or the EU) strive to develop frameworks to rank universities based on factors related to teaching, they do not consider ways in which universities create conditions for epistemic equality for international students. If we manage to create a system that challenges the assumed superiority of home perspectives over those rooted in intellectual traditions of international students, this will create a real impact brought about by social science. This impact will be twofold: firstly, the system will not only shape a new understanding of teaching excellence where epistemic equality constitutes a key determinant of its definition, but secondly, it will also become a legitimised act towards social change at our universities, leading to change in the consciousness of people who attend and govern them that without the intellectual contribution of international students , our home grown perspectives are poorer and limited.

So in the book, I have used the example of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), introduced in the UK over 3 years ago, to discuss the theoretical contribution this new system could make; in terms of helping us challenge coloniality in higher education (broadly understood as intellectual dominance over foreigners in the education system) and to show how this new system could work in practice. For the practical part of the book, some national data from the UK Engagement Survey (UKES) was statistically modelled, as engagement, built on pedagogies that create the type of the education process which is guided by ‘teaching standards’ of equal, just and free from coloniality participation in the classroom, should in my view be the core of the proposed changes to the system (UKES also has international equivalents, which makes the proposed metrics applicable beyond the context of the UK and I have discussed the applications of the metrics to other international frameworks such as AHELO, CLA or CALOHEE).

The proposed metric assesses the extent to which intellectual reciprocity between international and home students is invited by university tutors. It is possible to ‘measure’ this extent through analyses that focus on relationalities between the characteristics of the teaching process and realisation of students as epistemic equals. This type of analysis can provide information about how much of students’ belonging to a classroom community as an ‘equal’ could be explained by pedagogies that develop in students skills in understanding ‘others’, whilst also enabling them to express their own views and ethics. So the proposed metric ‘measures’ the type of pedagogical intentionality that can lead to transformations in affording rights to knowledge production to all in university seminar rooms. By nature, such intentionality is a relative concept, which means that the metric also assesses how each university performs to their own specification. There are therefore no absolutes against which the output can be assessed, nor are there any universal benchmarks. This is the most significant difference that distinguishes the proposed metric from the current TEF indicators which, as also argued in the book, continue to subordinate the intellectual value of international students. The absence of such benchmarks also makes the metric apolitical as the analysis of data is focused purely on the educational process that underlies epistemic inclusion of all students. Thus, the focus on the education process distances the metric from any national self-interests that have been said elsewhere to be driving the current representations of international students. The metric instead assesses universities (regardless of their location and political influences) on one core idea - that is, whether socially just, unprejudiced and free from coloniality education is delivered.

Aneta M. Hayes is Senior Lecturer in Education at Keele University, UK, and Director of the Undergraduate and MA programmes in Education. She has published widely in relation to the TEF and international students.