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Considering Culture in Cross-Border Higher Ed

For institutions embarking on international collaborations, careful consideration of a country's people and customs is key to success, says doctoral candidate Dara Fisher.

Dara FisherDoctoral candidate Dara Fisher — an engineer by training — found her calling in education when, as a graduate student studying technology and policy, she was invited to help create the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), a new institution established in 2012 in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During her routine visits to Singapore, coordinating inter-university exchange programs, and helping Singaporean students develop extracurricular activities, she found herself questioning the role of culture in how these collaborations develop.

“I turned to a degree in education to try and investigate how these sorts of cross-border partnerships could be developed in a way that incorporated local culture from the very beginning, and to look into the role that local actors play in shaping these cross-border collaborations,” says Fisher, Ed.M.’16, who focused her doctoral research at HGSE on such international collaborations.

Cross-border higher education (CBHE) institutions are not a new phenomenon in education. For several decades, western colleges and universities have been lured into creating new initiatives outside of their countries’ borders by the globalization of higher education and its potential for improving education around the world, as well as for additional funding and branding opportunities. Although the establishment of international degree programs, foreign branch campuses, and new higher education institutions abroad is fairly common, international success isn’t guaranteed, regardless of the home institution’s success in the United States. Many CBHE institutions can struggle in cultures so different from their own, Fisher says.

“While lots of institutions developing programs and campuses overseas do nominally consider culture as they pursue these endeavors, I think many fail to recognize just how influential local culture will be to every aspect of their partnership in a foreign country, from student recruitment and retention to campus operations,” she says.

As part of her dissertation, Fisher returned to Singapore to research the institution which she helped open: Singapore University of Technology and Design. Though interviews and observations on SUTD’s campus, Fisher has learned a lot about how education models move and adapt between cultures.

“Copying and pasting the U.S. model is never going to work because local actors always make it their own and make it make sense for them,” Fisher says. Instead what can occur is more a “culture shock,” she says, where conflict happens around differing ideas on the purpose of education or how a higher education institution should operate. In some cases, the lack of preparing for another country’s culture can result in difficulty recruiting students and faculty, or even a struggle to stay open when the offerings don’t align with what is valued by the local economy. Ultimately, it’s important for any institution’s graduates to find employment upon graduation, she adds.

When a partnership commences, Fisher says, there need to be strategies in place for better understanding differences and planning to accommodate such differences. Currently, in the process of writing her dissertation, Fisher hopes to provide guidance to western universities as they embark on initiatives abroad.

“Universities can enter markets not really knowing about what really works there educationally, sometimes even leading to a devastating result like a campus closure,” Fisher says, noting that it could also be beneficial for institutions to outline at the outset potential steps for bringing CBHE projects to a close. “But by really looking into the role of local culture in these partnerships, planners of these endeavors can lead to better outcomes in terms of the success of the projects, and can also develop them more responsibly and respectfully with local culture in mind.”