Educational Mobility and Transnationalization: reflecting on ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ discourse and rhetoric

I recently published a chapter with Peidong Yang as part of a wonderful collection of essays on Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is an edited volume put together by Nancy Gleason, who is the Director of Centre for Teaching and Learning and Senior Lecturer in Global Affairs at Yale-NUS College.

When invited to submit a contribution to the book, our first reaction was to grab hold of this opportunity to make a critical argument about the dominant discussion revolving around Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and higher education systems. In a sense, Yang and I were somehow frustrated with the way in which ‘big’ voices and narratives that are steering conversations largely take for granted the rhetoric of “change” and “transformation”, without really problematizing it as an idea located within broader political economy of global education. Scholars writing about educational policy mobilities like Stephen Ball and Susan Robertson might be similarly critical of this blindspot.

As such, while we could have offered a discussion of how HE may be impacted by and can in turn respond to 4IR from a functionalist angle, evidently this is not the approach we have chosen to take in this chapter. Instead, by leveraging on our respective studies in emerging student mobilities and transnational private HE in Asia, we reflected indirectly on claims tied to 4IR as a technologically enabled and driven force that would disrupt HE learning and training. We pondered the roles of student mobility, transnationalization, economic/social/cultural capitals, social reproduction—and the complex cross-border interplay of these factors—in animating today’s global landscape of HE.

We argued that existing discourses on 4IR remain very much dominated by the elite industrial and academic voices that coined the concept in the first place. Characterized by a strong technocratic/technophilic impulse and futuristic orientation, such discourses address primarily the policymakers and the elites, but elide the ‘on the ground’ experiences and subjectivities of the more disadvantaged and marginalized. This is discussed in our findings which show today’s HE institutions adopt ‘globalization’ or ‘internationalization’ as strategies to boost student enrollment, whereas students often use their participation in educational mobilities and transnationalism as alternative routes to overcome locally based barriers to access educational pathways and labor markets.

Lastly, and I quote from the chapter’s conclusion:

our chapter aspires to be a corrective to prevailing 4IR discourses which fail to challenge the continued hegemony of the business world and capitalist economy impacting upon HE alongside the unevenness, hierarchies, and inequalities that are reproduced in the process. We argue that paying attention to these issues is crucial if we wish to take seriously and critically the complex relationships between 4IR and higher education.

To read the full chapter, open access, visit 

Yang P., Cheng Y. (2018) Educational Mobility and Transnationalization. In: Gleason N. (eds) Higher Education in the Era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore