To the ‘Themenjahr International Spirit’ at the HWR Berlin
The starting point to this text is the call of the HWR to make 2018/2019 the year of ‘international spirit’. Within this context, I found myself warmly welcomed as an international student in the Winter semester of 2018/19, choosing to study at the HWR for a very particular programme that is extremely hard to find in Universities in my home country (Australia), in Germany and generally around the world: the Master of International Economics, with a brilliant, interdisciplinary approach to understanding modern social, economic and political questions. With my arrival, the international department at the University were always extremely helpful, as were the ERASMUS office and all the depart-ments directly linked to international students, which I discovered in the process of deciding to study further in Paris in the coming Winter semester of 2019/2020.
Clearly, the university has a relatively effective and well-organised plan for the warm welcoming of students from other nations to its grounds, and for helping its students to make valuable experiences in other national contexts. While there is still much work to be done in making all the university’s services available for students in English, I applaud the university’s efforts in making its ‘international spirit’ felt for international students.
However, beyond simply aiming to internationalise the student body, I expected the HWR’s international spirit to also include a much stronger willingness to engage academically with other, equally important aspects of the wider global context. To me, international spirit means reflecting deeply on the meaning of internationalisation and to actively build a university that fosters the ability of students to engage with real-world issues from many, more critical perspectives, and to give students the tools to participate in the change that is so sorely needed in the wider global context. In other words, it requires an aligning of the university and its programmes with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the globalised economic and political system, and all of the problems that are associated with it. As we are all aware, we face problems of persistent underdevelopment, global conflict, growing right-wing movements, widespread inequality of gender, class and race, and increased effects of climate change on the people who contributed the least yet are the hardest hit – to name a few.
Elsewhere in the academic and research world, especially in leading institutions, developments in the direction of true ‘international spirit’ are well underway.
This year, graduate students at Harvard University were behind an open letter to Jair Bolsonaro, calling for continued funding of the disciplines of philosophy and sociology, after the Brazilian President threatened to cut funding for these departments at Brazilian universities. This showed the Bolsonaro administration’s rejection of “any sort of critical studies” and was clearly an ideologically motivated political decision by the right-wing government, accor-ding to Stephanie Reist, a researcher in Rio de Janiero. The open letter was signed by over 800 institutions worldwide, highlighting a global awareness of the importance that the social sciences play in voicing resistance in the age of populist governments.
As emphasised in a press release by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, social sciences approaches are crucial for tack-ling societal challenges, and research in these areas cannot be limited to national borders. Right-wing extremism, the effects of climate change, urban overpopulation, and coordination for refugee migration and integration, are all examples of problems that transcend the confines of national territories. For this reason, Anja Karliczek, 19the Minister for Research announced increased funding for the social sciences in Germany, with the aim of “understanding our society, shaping our future”.
Taking these trends into account, I find many developments within the University during my time extremely counterproductive and troubling. These include the threatened nature of the Master of Labour Policies and Globalisation (an international master focusing on sustainable development and the important role of interna-tional labour standards and unions), the removal of mandatory social sciences units in bachelor programmes, the exclusion of heterodox economics professors from participating in the process of shaping the development of their own departments (and more generally the divisions within Fachbereich I), and a seeming general project to turn the university into a top-level business school without also bolstering the HWR’s already-established strength in the social sciences (the two are far from mutually exclusive, as was argued extensively by Prof. Dr. Leonhard Dobusch at an IPE Forum in June4).These all represent to me a lack of will to create a university that thinks internationally in a wider humanistic sense. To do so, and to truly place it in the league of top universities, the HWR needs to develop its programmes based on an understanding of the value of fostering critical thinking towards societal issues of global importance and on the aim to develop students who have integrated a deep understanding of their position in the world – regardless of the name of their bachelor. The easy part of international spirit is on its way to being achieved. Bilateral cultural exchange is, after all, an im-portant aspect of bringing people with different backgrounds and experiences together. However, the more difficult and visionary aspects of an international spirit, responding to the rea-lities of the international system are not present for me. This leaves me unhopeful for the future of the university to shape minds with a true international spirit – or better yet, a global consciousness – deeply embedded in them.