Neha Vora, “Is The University Universal?”

This will be the first in a long series of pointers to recent literature in the field of ethnography of higher education.

Neha Vora published an interesting paper last year in Anthropology & Education Quarterly, “Is the University Universal? Mobile (Re)Constitutions of American Academia in the Gulf States,” which looks at globalized higher education in the Persian Gulf. Framed within a postcolonial theory context, Vora sets out to examine what becomes of “universal” ideas about higher education in the Gulf Arab States, emphasizing that many of these universals obscure their own cultural origins as they spread outside the West through overseas campuses sponsored by Western elite universities. Vora’s paper is thus fundamentally skeptical of critiques of globalized higher education that obscure their own cultural origins, and one of her paper’s great merits is to underline the nationalist limits of higher education scholarship in much of the Global North, particularly in imperial/post-imperial societies. British critiques of higher education are usually deeply focused on Britain; French research on higher education generally focuses on France; and as Vora emphasizes, U.S. research on higher education is largely blind to non-American points of view. Vora cites a convincing example of an American scholar who dismisses an American academic collaboration in Doha “having never been there, seen the universities, nor spoken with the students herself.”

Naturally, Vora’s rejoinder is that we should actually do ethnographic research in the Gulf States, and ascertain what happens to supposedly universal academic values in the process. In the United Arab Emirates, she finds, the implantation of American university campuses has an unexpected benefit for UAE’s foreign residents: it allows younger foreigners to stay in the country to attend college, whereas otherwise their residency would become tenuous (if not impossible) once they enter adulthood. American universities offer new opportunities to foreign residents, in this context, because the UAE’s public universities are only open to citizens (—an intriguing departure in itself from the cosmopolitan European ideal of welcoming foreign students to public universities). The American branch campuses in the UAE, on the other hand, maintained no criteria of nationality in admissinos, and drew on their American academic values in seeking to create “egalitarian spaces” of cultural mixing. Yet ironically, in Vora’s assessment, the egalitarian ideals partly served to magnify the UAE’s racist realities:

However, it was the academy that highlighted for South Asian youth their difference from other groups, for it was in this space that they experienced direct racism and practices of self-entitlement from their peers, often for the first time. My interlocutors told me that what they found most difficult was the behavior of Emirati and other Gulf Arab nationals. In our conversations, they spoke of incidents in which locals (the common term for Gulf citizens) would cut in front of them in the cafeteria line, would expect them to share their notes and even their homework, and would speak in Arabic during mixed Arab/non-Arab social gatherings in ways that made them feel excluded. Ironically, then, it was the supposedly egalitarian platform of the university, and not the segregated environment of their childhoods, that showed South Asian youth the realities of social hierarchies in the UAE. (26)

In a second case study in Qatar, Vora further suggests that “mainstream U.S. feminism” would be unable to account for Qatari women’s critiques of sexism and gender inequalities in their country. Vora observes that while Qatari women citizens demand better state welfare provisions for themselves, they remain silent about the social exclusion of the “noncitizen majority” which makes the Qatari welfare state possible. Vora thus finds that:

The concepts of equality, democracy, and freedom, when applied from a Western academic perspective, fail to account for the particularities through which Qatari women were deploying these terms. In fact, celebrating their grievances against the state and their male compatriots as moments of feminist liberation makes us complicit in the alienation of noncitizen groups and in the power and labor hierarchies within which they live their daily lives. (31)

One might note here that mainstream American feminism has been criticized for its own racial complicities in the American context as well. Thus, universalizing ideals like “equality” are problematic even in their contexts of origin. But as Vora powerfully emphasizes, in debates over transnationalizing U.S. education, often it is the foreign branch campuses that get accused of corrupting academic values, which in turn reveals underlying ethnocentric “assumptions that home university spaces are somehow free from inequality, injustice, colonial forms of power, or profit motivation” (32). Vora reminds us that this sort of splitting is intellectually indefensible, as is the underlying image of the West-as-source-of-academic-values. As Vora concludes, rather than thinking of globalized higher education as “emanating from one place” (that is, “the West”), we do better to study the global university as a “network” in which universal values are constantly getting renegotiated.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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