Small-state Responses to Trans-National Higher Education: Jamaica and Malaysia

Reported by Nolizwe Mhlaba


CIE kicked off the spring 2016 Tuesday Dialogue series by welcoming Dr. Nigel Brissett, who graduated from CIE in 2011. Dr. Brissett currently is an Assistant Professor in International Development and Social Change at Clark University in Massachusetts. He has designed and taught a number of courses about development. A recent course focuses on fostering dialogue about the MDGs and SDGs.


Dr. Brissett shared some of his personal history of transition into education from the private sector in his home country of Jamaica, and how that experience motivated him to pursue further studies at UMass. He explained that his prior work at the University of the West Indies enabled him to better understand the difficulties of accessing quality higher education in the Caribbean, but also to envision opportunities to expand tertiary education in the region. During his time at UMass he gained an even broader perspective of the global education landscape.


In his presentation, Dr. Brissett explored the question of the possible ways in which state size affects national policy response to trans-national higher education (TNE), using Jamaica and Malaysia as his case studies. With input from audience members, Dr. Brissett first defined key terms such as TNE and also articulated possible criteria for what constitutes a small or large state. For the purposes of this discussion, TNE referred generally to the phenomenon of students “study(ing) towards a foreign qualification without leaving their home country.” This issue is pertinent as it reflects the growing importance of higher education globally. As Dr. Brissett observed, the knowledge economy has become the most important driver of economic wealth and innovation, compared to the industrial economy, with its emphasis on land, labor and capital.


To examine the experiences of Jamaica and Malaysia, Dr. Brissett developed a working theory that the policies of small states tend to be motivated by the impulse to reduce their vulnerability rather than to exploit opportunities, when faced with external phenomena that potentially provide both benefits and threats. The audience echoed the view that globalization – the ever-increasing exposure to the rest of the world – can represent a threat that limits states’ powers of negotiation. These concerns apply to the education sector as well: TNE could generate significant revenue for small states if they act to expand the areas where they provide service. But at the same time the local market risks being overrun by higher prestige, foreign institutions undermining local higher education institutions.


Dr. Brissett then elaborated on his findings, which hinged on the policy environment aspect of the TNE opportunity matrix, an analytical tool used by the British Council. Through this framework, and extensive research, he concluded that Jamaica’s policy response (less openness and more severity towards TNE) was characteristic of small states, while Malaysia’s dominant response of expanding TNE seemed to conform to large state behavior. Dr. Brissett cautioned against interpreting these findings in a binary manner, and acknowledged the complexity of the issue. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that state size plays an important role in higher education policies.