Education Without Borders

Borders — or the lack of them — are becoming big in the international aid and development world. Just look at the host of organizations seeking to extend the reach of technical and support services globally: Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Engineers Without Borders, Technology Without Borders, stand as but a few. In education, there are a lot of organizations that lack borders such as Students without Borders, Education without Borders, Librarians without Borders, and Teachers without Borders. All of these have some type of global or international mandate to extend the reach of what they do (teach, study, curate or inform) beyond their own geopolitical border. But what about within those borders or outside of a development context? How well do we do there?

The topic came up in a number of discussions I’ve had with colleagues from the University of British Columbia and Texas Tech University the past few days. At issue was how little universities collaborate between each other or even within their own borders in contexts where there isn’t some ‘exotic’ context such as aid, or international relations. Thus, it seems that Canadian or American universities are more likely to collaborate with institutions across the globe in places like China or India than within North America. For example, In Toronto we have three major universities and all of them include some program on community or public health, yet these programs do not formally collaborate in spite of all being funded from the same government. It doesn’t change when you go outside of the city to consider institutions nearby like the University of Guelph,University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, McMaster or UOiT that all have things to contribute. It is more than a little ironic that “collaborate” is a usable keyword found on each of these institutions websites including the homepage of UoIT!

This isn’t to say that there is no cross-pollination between centres, it is just that such examples largely reflect those partnerships created by individuals, not institutions.

Part of the reasons have to do with a mindset surrounding the borders that we erect in education and science. As I’ve mentioned before, we in the academy rarely reward or truly encourage collaborative learning, because it means dissolving borders between people. How can you tell who did what? In the case of institutional partnerships around education, joint training programs, team science, and academic-supported social innovation the incentives are low when borders matter. It’s hard to take credit when you need to share your success with others. It’s hard to raise the kinds of donor funds when you can’t tell if your institution is the leader or your partner is.

It also matters when you have a disconnect between your vision and mission and common practice. Universities have mission statements that suggest  goals of advancement of knowledge (“velut arbor aevo – As a tree with the passage of time”, University of Toronto), seeking the truth (“Concordia cum vitae” — University of Waterloo or “veritas (truth)”, Harvard University) and contributions to society (“as one who serves” –University of Regina). None of these have anything to do with borders, suggesting that the reluctance to consider going beyond borders is a failure of mission, not just a matter of governance and practice. Indeed, a more detailed read of most university’s mission statements suggests that collaboration should be inherent in their mandate.

How about a true education without borders? Imagine taking classes from the best faculty across universities, while gaining greater access to those in your own institution. Consider the possibilities of what could come from having students at one institution work with those at other institutions to create knowledge or actions that benefit both including the communities they are a part of. What would a cross-university, cross-disciplinary curriculum look like? The possibilities are endless. However, unless we consider the concept of education without borders, we’ll remain with universities with them and that doesn’t seem to fit the mission of what these places are all about.

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