The rise of regionalisms
On today’s show, I speak with Susan Robertson about regionalism. Susan’s newest co-edited volume is entitled, Global Regionalisms and Higher Education: Projects, Processes, Politics. The volume looks at and theorizes regional bodies around the world, specifically looking at the work of regional bodies on higher education. In our conversation, Susan explained the history of regions, their connection to particular political agendas of liberalization, and their work in higher education.
Susan Robertson is a professor of sociology of education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol. She is also co-editor of the journal Globalization, Societies, and Education.
Citation: Robertson, Susan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 18, podcast audio, March 7, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/susanrobertson/
Will Brehm 1:34
Susan Robertson, welcome to FreshEd.
Susan Robertson 1:37
Thanks very much, Will. Wonderful to be here.
Will Brehm 1:39
You have spent over a decade or so thinking and working inside the European Union space, specifically within the area of higher education. Your newest co-edited book is entitled Global Regionalisms and Higher Education: Projects, Processes, and Politics. And you look at regionalism across the globe, basically, and you have authors from across the globe contributing to the volume. To start the conversation, I think we should try and define some of the terms that we’ll be using in our conversation. So, specifically, what is a region and what is regionalism?
Susan Robertson 2:22
Well, that’s a good place to start, I think. Actually, if you dive into the literature, you do find yourself facing a bit of a headache with a proliferation of terms -regions, regionalisms, regionalization, hybrid, and on it goes. But we could probably, in starting out, kind of think about a region as some kind of formal or informal set of arrangements that might take the form of economic arrangements, as we see with the EU. They may well be cultural. So, you could think at one level of the Bologna process that we could talk a little bit more about, that links together higher education institutions around some common qualifications frameworks. But essentially, what we’re talking about here is something about the moment of identity. So, we say, “well, this is the EU”. Or we say, “well, this is the ASEAN region”, which it was kind of formally launched, in its latest iteration, in the Asian region at the end of last year. So, when we talk about a region, we’re thinking more or less about identity. Something that we can point to. And actually, a region for itself is likely to be able to say, we are the EU, and it typically is also doing a lot of identity, kind of, work here. Now, if we go to regionalisms, typically, what writers are talking about are the mechanisms, the structures, the processes, the arrangements, and there are lots and lots of them. They may be political, economic, perhaps cultural. In more complex regionalisms, we see lots of these different mechanisms. Perhaps institutions that maybe if we took the EU as an example, they’re quite formal institutions, they’ve got a parliament here, legal structures, so you can take cases. But that’s not always the case. And you could perhaps go into some of the Latin American spaces or Africa, and we may not see the complexity of those structures and processes and arrangements and so on. There’s another word we sometimes find that we encounter, which is regionalization. And again, really, if I look at what they’re trying to describe, here, what they’re really identifying are the kind of tangible manifestations. You know, students moving over borders, trade that can or people that can move around a common space. If we thought of, we get to an airport and we see that there’s a line that says, APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) members, you can go down this track. That’s a very good example of the visible manifestation. So, the rest of us are all waiting to enter through the visitors or those lines that are talking about who are permanent residents. But in this case, there’s a visible identification of a track that certain individuals in this case can move through. But that comes out of arrangements that enable these processes to take place.
Will Brehm 5:43
It sounds like a region is comprised of mainly nation states in a certain grouping. Are there other actors that constitute regions?
Susan Robertson 5:57
Well, I would say that what’s happened to our understanding of regions is quite early on, it was in perhaps, the post-war period. Typically, we did say, well, it’s nation states. And maybe that was reasonably accurate because what we hadn’t seen at that particular point. We saw what’s often described as much more endogenous. So, a region making itself typically out of maybe member states ceding some of their sovereignty. This is nation state sovereignty, by the way, to enable them to work in a collaboration or forms of cooperation around perhaps trade, political forms of organization, and so on. But what we’ve seen since the 1990s, where we’ve seen neoliberalism as a set of ideas that says, “well, let’s get rid of some of these barriers, and so on, that limit the way in which we organize ourselves”. And we often talk about this as a shift from government to governance. So, government was in this case, nation states doing the negotiating, giving up some of the nation state sovereignty to enable trade or movement of people, collaborations and so on. But with this shift to governance, in other words, where many more actors engaged in the activity of governing, then what we see are a proliferation of different kinds of actors. So, I could give you an example of the higher education sector. There are many actors, and actually not necessarily, in all cases, governments. In some cases, they might be universities that are more explicitly engaged in brokering or making sure that their universities can be part of the European Higher Education Area. In other cases, for example, it was France that quite explicitly launched a proposal. And this is quite extraordinary because France is very protective of its nation state sovereignty. But it launched a call, really, to develop the European higher education area. And they’re often quite diverse and different interests at work here. Which might be to do with changing things in your nation state space because you feel that you need to generate competition and so on. So, I think it’s generally more accurate now to -I’m sure, in the post war period, there were always more actors in the nation states, you know, corporations, councils of industrialists and so on. But it would be fair to say, I think, that in the period from the 1990’s onwards, there’s been a rapid expansion of many, many more actors. Again, if we take the Bologna process, the University of Macquarie is at one level, we could see them as an actor in the European Higher Education Area Bologna process. It badges itself as Bologna compliant. And so, this is a university in Australia that in some way is now constituting or maintains if we want to use that word, or contributes to keeping the Bologna process at work, which is a regional mechanism at work.
Will Brehm 9:43
So, you’re saying that there have been, since the 1990’s, more actors that are involved in processes of regionalism. Or mechanisms and institutions of regionalism. Has this coincided with more regions being formed in the world?
Susan Robertson 10:03
I think the common point here is definitely from the 1990’s onwards. There was an explosion, again, of regionalisms. We often talk about first and second wave regionalisms. So, the post-World War Two period -Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America- there was that first round of regionalisms. And in part, perhaps, in that first period, it was developing mechanisms for cooperation to, in many cases, recover after the Second World War. The second wave of regionalisms, 1990s, most of us would agree that really what that reflects is a means of countering global processes. So, neoliberalism, which is a political project that actually argues that we should take away some of the protections. Remove, for example, some of the regulations around foreign direct investment, people moving, finances moving, and so and so. That was that broad political project around liberalizing, privatizing, and such. Those global processes create all kinds of problems potentially for nation states because if you’re inward looking and on your own, then in a global world, then the view is often it’s better to be in a regional organization with others to manage these global processes. So, these two things work together. They’re often the two sides of the same coin. We have global processes looking for liberalization, and then regionalizing processes that tend to try and limit the consequences of being exposed to these big social forces. So, that is the case then that we saw many, many more forms of regionalisms. And I think that what also then happens is too, once you have a region like the EU, it often is looking to broker because it finds itself as an actor on the world stage. The EU has been quite active in looking out to the Asian region and trying to create a reflection of itself in, for example, the Asian region or down in the Latin American space. So, what begins as a dynamic generates even further dynamics because of the way in which these regional actors themselves begin to act as what we could call, a region for itself. And it often sees itself recognized in other regional formations in other parts of the world where it will typically set up meetings, share practices, instruments, and so on that enable it to almost act in a kind of a state-like way, even though we might not recognize them as formal nation states.
Will Brehm 13:17
And this comes to the idea of inter-regionalism where there’s these -so, can you explain what this idea is? How did this happen? Or what is inter-regionalism?
Susan Robertson 13:31
So, inter-regionalisms is essentially where we’re looking at, for example, the European Union, the EU. And it might look out into the Asian space. And let’s be very clear, the EU, though it talks a lot about wanting to cooperate in the world, when it’s been looking out into the Asian space, particularly for the 1990’s onwards, it is also very mindful of the fact that it’s interested in trade. It wants to be much more visible in the Asian imaginary there. You know, Asia back into Europe. Nation states like China, in the Asian region would be on the radar of the EU. So, we can see, actually, from the 1990’s. The EU has also looked out across the Atlantic. Looked at the way in which America had been as part of the NAFTA arrangements but also other region building projects like APEC. It’s tried to develop these inter-regional projects that allow it to promote its interest in another region. And the reverse is the case with ASEAN. It’s trying to think about and limit U.S. power in the Asian region. So, developing these alliances into the European space. So, what I’ve been describing, I think quite clearly, is the way in which politics but perhaps through forms of what we might call soft power. So, we’re not getting our armies out and installing them along boundaries and so on. We’re using, often, mechanisms like inter-regionalisms. And perhaps this is where higher education becomes quite important. I mean, who can be against collaborations around higher education? Sharing understandings of the world curriculum, collaborations between universities and so on. So, though there’s, I think, real important and powerful politics at work here, the mechanisms that are often used to broker these inter-regionalisms are mechanisms that enable the oiling of the wheels -if we could talk about it that way- of these interregional projects. So, ASEAN, the EU, LA or Latin America. Now there’s not such a thing called a Latin American region that’s specific and identifiable. CARICOM is one. But –
Will Brehm 16:21
-that’s the Caribbean region.
Susan Robertson 16:22
That is indeed. But what you might find with the Latin American end of EU-LA, which is a collaboration that we can see, is that several kinds of Latin Americans, MERCOSUR, CARICOM, all of those different regional agreements, UNASUR is another one. And there’s a proliferation. If you go and look, you begin to see that we often talk about regions in just a few examples. I mean, if you look, there are very, very many different kinds of regional collaborations. Often with, let’s say Venezuela as a member of four or five of them. And you begin to wonder how these all might work. But these are nation states kind of popping up in different regional organizations just to make sure their nation state interests are protected there as it’s working now up at a different scale of governing.
Will Brehm 17:23
So, turning to higher education, why are regional bodies and regionalism concerned with education? As you said, who wouldn’t be against having more connections between students across nation state borders? But is there another sort of agenda that these regional bodies have in mind?
Susan Robertson 17:51
I think indeed there is. Often, the proposers of the European Higher Education Area, which is the EU manifestation of this and the European research area. Both of those in Europe. Though they will talk always that these are mechanisms of cooperation and so on, there’s a much more serious agenda here. That agenda is quite explicitly about developing the basis for being a competitive nation and region. And increasingly, as education itself has been regarded as powering the economy, and particularly higher education. Ideas, innovation, that might lead to, for example, breakthroughs in engineering, bio developments, pharmaceutical developments, and so on. Universities are seen to be, potentially, the powerhouses of ideas, of human capital, of people. But working now, not just at the level of bodies doing manufacturing and so on, but heads doing some of the ideas work that is crucially important for being a competitive country and a competitive region in the world. So, the question is, why would you regionalize? Why can’t nation states do it by themselves? Now, let’s come back to the French example that we talked about. Universities have often seen themselves as not necessarily only or explicitly involved in developing ideas and people and skills for the economy. It’s been very important to the history of universities which impacts languages, humanities, the arts, and all of those areas have been very important for a society thinking about and reflecting upon itself. So, there’s a tension in the academy about the instrumentalizing of knowledge for the economy. This has meant that in universities, for example in France, much of the research effort has been located in specialized research centers. Universities have been separate from these specialized research centers and academics in France, very resistant. Now, what a region does is it becomes, potentially, a different scale at which you can advance now a political project to open up economies and use the university to be much more explicitly involved in economic development by regionalizing. Or we might call this rescaling. Moving up one level, the political project, so you can begin to advance it at that level. But then it creates a new agenda at that level that then requires those institutions in those countries to now begin to come into line. So, this is about the way in which politics itself -so, higher education, now being lined up to be part of the armory for developing competitive knowledge economies, the knowledge in those universities being regarded as important, making sure that the conditions, or the agenda, or the rules of the game are now not controlled by academics in the academy but actually being set at a different level. And then those below that level, then coming into line.
Will Brehm 21:53
So, these higher education institutions around the world are all trying to become world class universities competing on that level, rather than thinking of their own locale?
Susan Robertson 22:06
Well, I think there’s multiple games here that are being played, but certainly a proxy of being a competitive economy is having a so-called world class university. So, for example, you’ll see selective funding to specific institutions. We could take Taiwan as an example. I think perhaps the top eight universities were given extra money in Taiwan to make sure that they screened up the world class universities ranking list. China, the same. China’s been investing very heavily in the topflight universities to make sure that they can enter into the top 50, 100, and so on. And what’s happening globally, is countries are using these as proxies of a knowledge economy. Because actually, in truth, if we really began to examine what’s a knowledge-based economy, we would always say, well, perhaps we’ve always had a knowledge-based economy. But there are newspapers that are selling these global rankings. So, they’ve got a vested interest in using this proxy of a knowledge-based economy because it sells newspapers. Countries who don’t want to feel as if they are falling out of the ranks of the important countries see it as important that they’ve got a certain number of their institutions up in the highest of ranks. Universities use these rankings themselves to attract students into their universities when they advertise themselves, and so on. A city like Melbourne will say, “we’re a knowledge rich city”, and then they’ll look at all the universities that are ranking quite highly add up, or develop their own measures, and then use this to advertise their cities. So, there’s perhaps a lot of different dynamics at work that are keeping all of these things operating and keeping operating these new regional projects.
Will Brehm 24:20
And it sounds like the agenda that’s being set is being set by many actors, not just some central actor within one region.
Susan Robertson 24:30
By many actors. Indeed, you’re right, Will. And that’s what gives it its power. Just imagine that it’s one actor kind of pushing a big stone along. But if we had many shoulders to the wheels with quite different interests at work, there’s suddenly now much more energy behind this thing and different interests. They might be there for quite different reasons. Some because they have a very strong vested interest, some because they don’t want to be left out. Perhaps we can see that, for example, Japan gets involved in a range of quite interesting bilateral arrangements in this case. But in this case, it wants to be in these bilateral arrangements. But it doesn’t want to be in these bilateral arrangements in ways that actually send it too far off its national agenda. If we look to the Asian region, countries like Singapore and Malaysia, they are very weary of how much would go up into the region. Because what they are -certainly Malaysia is very aware that at the bottom-line social cohesion is important. So, it’ll get involved in the regional activity but not at the expense of ensuring that some of the activity that it believes is very important at the nation state space remains intact or some of that agenda. So, Asian regionalism, Southeast Asian regionalisms has taken some time to kind of get some energy behind it. In part, because countries like Singapore said, “well, it took too long to become an autonomous nation state”. And it invests a lot of energy and effort in ensuring Singapore as a nation state project kind of has the elements there that keep it moving along. So, ceding too much of that would undermine that. So, you can see different actors might be wanting to push some things forward. And other actors are there because they want to limit what gets moved forward. And that would include how much autonomy they might have over their higher education institutions. They are therefore, potentially, completely opposite reasons. We went to Thailand, and one of my doctoral students is researching Thailand at the moment. Thailand is trying to use ASEAN regionalisms in order to increase levels of cooperation, but particularly, levels of English and particularly to modernize its higher education institutions, but only the topflight institutions. So, not all universities in Thailand will be put under pressure to engage in mobility, quality, bring in quality assurance mechanisms and so on. But the topflight ones, yes. Because that’s how they see that they could modernize Thailand to bring it into being a competitive knowledge economy at the nation state space.
Will Brehm 27:31
So, let’s turn to some of the chapters in your book. The different, in a sense, case studies of these different regions. How are some of the authors that are included in your volume theorizing and conceptualizing regionalism?
Susan Robertson 27:47
Well, I’m very proud of this book. And actually, I’m probably doing a little bit of advertising here. But it is the case, it’s the first book on higher education regionalisms that is explicitly engaging with not just describing, let’s say, higher education as a regional project for itself, but actually, in quite explicit and deep conversation with some of the different theories of regionalisms that are out there. And so not all chapters are the same. They’re not reading off the same hymn sheet here. So, we could take, for example, the chapter by Susana Melo, and this is a lovely piece that comes out of some fabulous empirical doctoral work that she does on looking at Europe and some of the institutions that have helped develop Europe as a region. She’s drawing quite explicitly on one of the big, big, kind of, writers on regions and regionalisms, Björn Hettne who has developed the idea of regionness and the idea of actorness, that the region itself kind of acts in and for itself. So, it’s not just a kind of passive space, that we might say, well, there’s activity that’s taking place in this space. But actually, where we see this arrangement, this identity then acts and so she calls this actorliness. It acts quite explicitly in and for itself and brokering projects and so on. It’s a lovely chapter and she does that beautifully.
Perhaps if we went to work looking at regions as socially constituted through ideas and institutions, social norms and so on. Maybe the chapter by Jean-Émile Charlier and colleagues. Here, what they’re looking at is through the Bologna process. And let me just say for those of you out there who are listening. The Bologna process is this quite extraordinary mechanism that gets going in the late 1990’s – 1999. And now, if we look at that process in 2016, there’s what 47 countries that have all signed on to bringing their institutions into a common architecture: three years undergraduate, two years, master’s, and three years doctoral. And while in countries like England, that’s fairly much how the higher education architecture looked, if you went to Germany or Slovenia, you would have seen that you might have had a five-year undergraduate, and so on. And the argument essentially, was that this limited access to higher education because if you’ve got all of your money being spent on a five-year undergraduate, there’s only a certain number of students that you could fund into undergraduate. And so, this was the issue around access and so on. So, the study that the chapter by Charlier and colleagues is actually looking at the meaning-making that begins to develop. The extent to which new understandings of higher education at the institutional level begin to emerge. And they make the very interesting and somewhat kind of paradoxical point that when these instruments, the Bologna, but also some other instruments that help create this European higher education area get taken to and get inserted into the African region, what you see is an imposition to some extent in Africa and a greater degree of compliance with these instruments in the African region, in part because Europe is actually funding these. And a kind of uneven development across Europe of the embedding of these social norms and institutionalizing these. In part, that unevenness happens because some of the countries across Europe were accession countries. And they were required to come into line with a kind of fairly heavy hand around compliance. Other countries have been much more reluctant to be Bologna compliant. And we see this actually high levels of unevenness. So, that’s a very nice chapter using that way of thinking about regions. There’s a lot of work that goes into creating new institutions, new identities, new social practices, new ways of doing things, new meaning-making, and so on.
If we went to the chapter that I had something to do with, there’s a very interesting body of work. And let me just kind of put it here. So, if we look at nation states, and we say, okay, nation states have state structures, and so on. Now, we go up when we look at Europe, many of the elements that we might identify as being part of a state project, you know, it’s got juridical institutions in it. So, it’s the European Court of Justice, it’s got a parliament. But we kind of think, a state is actually something that happens at the nation state space. And we recognize these as part of a system of nation states that emerged particularly at the beginning of the 1900’s. So, some writers like Kanishka Jayasuriya and Shahar Hameiri, and actually the work that we’ve been doing in Bristol, we’re very interested in the way in which the idea of the estate. Estate that is actually having to keep economic development moving along, and it might well find that it has to move the boundaries of how it works away just from being tucked up neatly inside a nation state space but extending outward into what you might call a regional frontier. So, now we still got a state. It’s still operating through legal or juridical instruments, through the typical political arenas that a state operates through and on institutions and so on. But it’s shifting its boundaries, its political activity to ensure that particularly capital accumulation or economic development is happening. And in part, this kind of theory is actually saying, and this is what we’re particularly kind of interested in exploring in relation to Europe, is that it reflects to some extent a crisis of governing. And so, the way you try and perhaps govern, think of a household, you try and reorganize the way in which you might do things in a household by changing a little bit the way in which the rules are set in the household. And, again, if we thought of governing, a big kind of country, here, or sets of countries, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to play around with the instruments of governing in order to make sure that you can keep this economic project moving along in ways in which it enables it to be competitive with other economic projects in other parts of the world, or economic and political projects in the Latin American region, out into the Asian space, and so on. So, these different chapters, I think, are using these different theoretical resources to really see if we could see what kind of traction we can actually get on higher education regionalisms. And they’re looking at different parts of the globe to see if they can generate some insights. And I think, collectively, what that book is really hoping to do is open up a conversation around the value of not just different theoretical approaches to regionalisms but what can we see and what can we see differently when we put a different set of lenses on the wonderful problem, the issues that we’re kind of looking at.
Will Brehm 37:08
So, reading the tea leaves looking into the future, what do you make of higher education regionalisms going forward?
Susan Robertson 37:17
Well, I think we can’t say that it’s going to be an expanding -you can already see, if you’re looking at politics here in the UK, is retractions actually. And I think the conclusion that we could see in the chapter that I worked on for the book, there’s a drawing back in toward a national frontier. And in part, that’s occurring because there’s a sense that some of the promise of operating at the regional level isn’t delivering quite what they wanted, and so some retraction back in. So, I think across different parts of the world, there are different speeds at work. And historically, we’ve seen this anyway. There was a boost of regionalisms in the Second World War period, and then a kind of retracting back in. And then we’ve seen a burst of regionalisms but very different forms of regionalisms. There are other developments that are taking place. Quite a lot of big inter-regional negotiations that have stood outside of the World Trade Organization now, that are also trying to build these different kinds of collaboration. So, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP and the other ones called TPP. These are also underway. So, maybe you can see a lot of churn at work in the world of which education increasingly now is seen not just as something that we do to create more enlightened individuals and more reflexive people in the world or advanced research. Higher education institutions have been caught up in creating services economies. Now, once that happens, then it seems to me that there will be a constant kind of set of politicking and reorganizing to keep these different projects at work. So, in essence, I think there’ll be a lot of movement in these tea leaves. There will be a lot of churn in these tea leaves as higher education institutions get caught up in the business of promoting, advancing political projects in the world. So, I think there’s a lot that’s going to happen into the future in ways that we can’t always predict.
Will Brehm 40:02
Well, Susan Robertson, it’s always wonderful to talk. Thank you very much for joining FreshEd.
Susan Robertson 40:07
As well with you and thank you for the opportunity to have a conversation about these things today.