by Susan L. Robertson
Today is the last day of the CIES 2018 conference here in Mexico City, and it was an early and coolish start. 8.00 am, and 16 degrees, to be precise. Rest assured, the day would hot up both temperature wise and likely intellectually. South-North dialogue not only challenges us to examine our ties to Empire and imperialism, but even region building projects – like the one I am strolling to go listen to, which have historically been characterised by asymmetrical relations that follow old colonial footprints.
As I walk to the conference venue, the birds were already out singing and there was the early morning hum on the streets. Street vendors and music machines churn out the characteristic colour around this historical centre. I head into the conference venue, spying colleagues with their ubiquitous cup of coffee; a caffeine boost to get the day under way.
I am sitting here no listening to CPGJ cluster member, PhD student – Aliandra Lazzari Barlete – who is giving a fascinating paper on higher education regionalism. Aliandra is arguing that higher education projects in Latin America have important implications for how education experiences and outcomes are organised. She began by focusing on ALCUE – the Common Area of Higher Education involving Europe and Latin American and Caribbean countries. By 2008, despite initial energy beginning in 2000, this initiative started to fade away, with no activities taking place after 2008.
In 2011, a new EU-CELAC dialogue emerged. The higher education project had very similar kinds of goals to the earlier ALCUE, though no mention of the earlier effort. However, this time there were now visible outcomes; an EU-LAC foundation, an EU-LAC museum project, and a proliferation of other activities, but again, with little reference to the past.
In 2010, the EU launched the Innovation Union to replace the Lisbon Convention’s earlier focus on better jobs. Now the Union was promoting innovation. In the same year, the EU-LAC countries also launched a new round of collaboration. CELAC (Community of Latin American Countries) was then set up in 2011.
How do we understand these changes? Drawing on the work of Dale and Robertson (2002), she argues that ongoing changes in regions are increasingly shaped by scalar projects. That is, higher education is increasingly to be governed at the regional and not only national and local levels.
Why were these developments important? Aliandra also asks: how might we understand these developments methodologically? One way is to do an ethnography and follow the activities in-situ. A second is to follow policy documents, and to pose questions as to what happens at what scale, through the activities, and which actors.
In terms of scale, the activities are now relocated to this regional project – with the EU and the CELAC both placing money into the project. Regarding actors, we see the EU being a much more vibrant as actors. In terms of activities – there are regular meetings, the academics are much more involved, and there are now distinct activities and outputs. And despite the LAC side wanting to greater control over the agenda and funding, the EU has continued to play a major if not growing role in embedding the CELAC in higher education policy.
Now that CELAC is a region, all actors are invited to the meetings in the region. However, does having more actors in the LAC give more power to the EU, as the EU has the funding? Is this a revamping of the earlier project? Or is the CELAC a new beast, trying to pull away from the past? Or is it the opposite? Has it created a new and deeper form of north-south dependence? Answers to these questions will require interview-based research. However, it is clear that those with the funds, such as the EU, have significant capacity to shape ongoing agendas in distant locations, and in this case Latin American region building.