Writers: Doraemon, Aoife Black

The article CUHK: Becoming an International University? [1] discussed the question of what an international university is. As the article suggested, the term international represents the collaboration of people from different backgrounds.  which suggests a prerequisite, which is “nations” before “international.” To better communicate the image of the ideal international university from the writer’s mind, this article would like to adopt the term “Global University” instead of “International University.” Bill Readings suggested in his book, The University in Ruins, that university is part of the modernity system that provides a public area for national culture maintenance. Through this system, cultural values could be developed. However, under globalization, this is no longer the case. The process of globalisation fiercely erases the boundaries of nation-states. Since the “University” is eroding, the re-establishment of “University”, as an institution of promoting and protecting the idea of an idealistic culture, has become an urgent matter of our time. What kinds of universities can foster the development of human society? Since the cultural meaning of the University is important, this article would first try to deconstruct the power dynamic behind the social meaning of the “University” and then to suggest an idea on the culture “Global University”.

Globalisation and the “University” as a Capital Arena

Globalisation itself is a capital-driven process. The internationalisation of the university, in this way, is an exchange of commodities (where universities became service providers). Globalisation pushes the capital toward the world, where the capital should also be phrased as “capitals.” The complexity of capitals should be understood in two ways: capital as global capital, and also capital as a regional capital power. Yet, the two capitals follow the same logic, which is to pursue profit maximisation. It commodifies the university education system in order to maintain the economic system. One of the best examples would be the British university tertiary education system. Alex Callinicos (2006) describes the British tertiary system like this, 

“British universities are being driven by priorities shaped by the needs of big business. They are being reconstructed to provide British and foreign corporations with the academic research and the skilled workers that they need to stay profitable. At the same time, they are being transformed from scholarly institutions into profit centres earning foreign exchange for the economy of the United Kingdom. To this end, expansion takes place on the cheap, as resources per student are slashed, and universities, departments and individual academics are encouraged to compete with each other. The shift away from student grants to loans and tuition fees forces many students to work long hours to support themselves in preparation for a life of wage labour. No wonder potential students from poorer backgrounds are being discouraged from going to university.” [2]

Neo-liberalisation of the university is not only presented in the economic aspect but also cultural aspect through selling the image of “campus culture”, which could be explained by the cultural hegemony theory suggested by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

The Cultural Hegemony and War of Position

Gramsci characterized cultural hegemony as “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” [3]. Contrary to the political sector, where the war of manoeuvre (confrontations happen mostly in the field of military, state, and police) is ongoing, cultural hegemony exists in civil society, involving  indirect confrontations mostly in the place of  media and publication.

Gramsci used the military terminology “war of position”, meaning “the war to grab a better position of ‘common sense’,” to describe this situation. Gramsci claimed that among the capitalist society, firstly, there are the knowledge producers, who produce different ideologies as they hold certain interests with the particular parties they belong to. Secondly, different ideologies combat with each other in the field of civil society to grab the position of “common sense” (e.g. newspaper, literature, publication, education system), and lastly, as a “hegemony”, it must be able to “link” people together, meaning that it has to form a unified “common sense”. Through the above process, the dominant groups maintain their position through a mix of sheer force with the active participation of the subordinate groups, which is, the acquisition of the consent of the people.

It is noteworthy that among the arena of the war of position, the conflicts happen with  Under capitalism, it is essential to compete with each other to reach the highest profit to survive. The capitalist logic requires educational institutions to foster the talents in “society (which is within the capitalist culture).” Hence, the university’s culture is for sale. According to the Financial Times in 2006, 

“British universities were becoming more business savvy. 

The number of options and licence agreements jumped 198 per cent to 2,256 to 2003-4. The combination of licensing deals, contract research, consultancy income and other activities contributed about £2 billion to the economy in 2003-4. 

Universities have become more successful at licensing their discoveries. Adrian Day, the policy officer at HEFCE, said, “Five years ago technology commercialisation was a new word for universities and everyone was being told to spin out companies without really knowing what to do with them. Now we are seeing fewer companies but of higher quality.”[4]

Through the above description, we can see a clear picture that university education is, in fact, becoming more and more commercialised. This is not only a process to make money, but also a process for universities to discipline themselves with a market-oriented education mode. Through this process, they can attract more funds and donations to maintain their status among the academic world. Putting it into the theory suggested by Gramsci, we can at least figure out two reasons for the condition that universities in Hong Kong are facing. Firstly, the universities are using their campus culture to commodify themselves and get money. Therefore, during the process of such self-discipline, the true campus culture is vanishing. The second reason is that the universities are becoming the arena of capitals, which means that the capitals are trying to combat, to invest, to get and to foster the talent that particular capital need, for instance, the Morningside college in CUHK is expected to be “international”, SHHO college is expected to admit students from popular major(like medicine, global business) to maintain their sources of funding. Therefore, different capitals are intervening with the colleges and washing out the original function that universities are supposed to have. The universities are therefore changing from a “public intellectual area” which pushes the society forward to a “capital arena” where different capitals compete to develop a more advantageous environment to maintain their positions.

What is a Real Global University?

With the clarification of the neo-liberalisation of education, we can clearly understand the so-called Global university is invalid in every university in the world, it is just a globally commodified education. Perhaps it’s time for us to consider or start a discussion on “what is the standard of the global university?”.

The culture of a university highly depends on its teaching staff and students. If CUHK wants to be a global university, it will require our efforts. Several steps might help us envision our global university: 

  • Looking around the world while on Hong Kong ground

As a cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong should also look internationally. Since 2000, constant protests have been happening around  the world, for example  in Myanmar, Thailand, France, and Palestine. Perhaps as a student in a global university, we should keep an eye on every society; we should be aware that Hong Kong is a part of the world. If we try to discover the stories around us and initiate discussion, we might have a better understanding of  the world and a clearer vision of global universities.

  • Initiate more discussion on international issues

The discussion environment at CUHK is not enough.  Students are unable to gather and discuss international and Hong Kong issues because of the pandemic. It would be great for both local and international students to share their views and opinions on these issues. Cross-cultural communication is the prerequisite to a global university. We should first start to dare to tell our own story. We should initiate more discussion on international and also local issues.

  • Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will

The current situation of the world is not ideal and  the world is still suffering from the pandemic. The consequences caused by COVID are still unpredictable and the world would face a serious challenge due to economic recession. However, we should still hold an attitude of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”[5] We should dare to imagine a utopia, and also believe in the possibilities of human beings. Only with such an attitude could a Global university culture be formed.

These points are necessary for a student of a global university. Although at this point, CUHK is still far from being a “Global university,” our effort is all the more important. The university culture is created by us and the people are the basis of this culture. If you think CUHK is not what you envision it to be, then please join our discussion on your ideal global university. We, the students, are the main components of the university. We are responsible for determining what kind of university it is.


[1] The article can be found in our previous publication, Culture.

[2] Callinicos, A. (2006). Universities in a neoliberal world . Bookmarks Publications.

[3] Gramsci, A., & Hoare, Q. (1971). Selections from The Prison Notebooks (p. 276). London: Lawrence and Wishart.

[4] J. Boone, “Academics Learn to License Inventions”, Financial Times, 26 July 2006. cited by Alex Callinicos in his book, University in a neoliberal world.

[5]“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” is a motto created by Romain Rolland, a french Nobel Prize winner, and used by Italian marxist Gramsci to describe his attitude on communist projects.

Further Reading

The University in Ruins by Bill Readings (1996)

Tracing the roots of the modern American University in German philosophy and in the work of British thinkers such as Newman and Arnold, Bill Readings argues that historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture. But now that the nation-state is in decline, national culture no longer needs to be promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of “excellence.” On the surface, this does not seem particularly pernicious. The author cautions, however, that we should not embrace this techno-bureaucratic appeal too quickly. The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. Readings urged us to imagine how to think, without concession to corporate excellence or recourse to romantic nostalgia within an institution in ruins. The result is a passionate appeal for a new community of thinkers. However, in the context in Hong Kong, Hong Kong has never become a nation-state, the role of “nation-state” should be substituted by “colonial/post-colonial-state.”


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