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The globalisation of higher education has elevated colonial languages, such as English, to the status of a global academic lingua franca. Today, universities collaborate and compete on a worldwide scale in the pursuit of knowledge production. In many contexts, English has emerged as the language of choice for those undertaking and offering university education, and, subsequently, has become not only a valuable commodity in the global economy, but also a language associated with reproducing and propagating particular epistemological stances and worldviews.

The imposition – or uncritical adoption – of a particular language in an institution of higher education is far from a ‘neutral’ decision. Rather, it is a profoundly political and cultural dilemma for those compelled to learn it and use it for teaching and research. Its imposition can elicit sentiments of cultural erasure, occupation, and identity loss, and lead to linguistic and cultural displacements. Language, therefore, carries much more than communicative value. It creates mechanisms of symbolic power, and can act as a tool for symbolic violence. This brings to the fore what we refer to in this event’s title as Higher Education’s ‘Language Problem’ (see Bhatt, Badwan & Madiba 2022; and also Preece & Marshall 2020).     

Through three distinct provocations from our invited speakers, this event explores a range of critical perspectives and reflective accounts which link higher education research with inquiry into linguistic challenges, paradigmatic dilemmas, (de)colonial efforts, and epistemic (in)justice within the global multilingual university. Upon the feedback gained from this event, organisers will formulate the rationale for a new network within the SRHE, the ‘Multilingual University Network’, through which they will interrogate the presence and uses of languages within university settings. This network will encourage debates which critique language policies and practices in higher education institutions with a view to gaining a better understanding of what linguistic behaviours and structures support or threaten justice and growth for all. This network will therefore draw on colleagues’ expertise such as sociology, applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, and higher education.

The combination of speakers and discussants outlined below transcend disciplines, fields of concern, and a single higher education context. The event aims to be a collaborative listening project that weaves together threads from multiple global contexts, differently troubled by the Language Problem, yet all trying to produce new lines of argument.


10.00 – 10.10

SRHE welcome and housekeeping

Introduction and overview of the session by Ibrar Bhatt

10.10 – 10.25

Professor Rui Yang (杨锐): Constructing a bi/multi-cultural intellectual mind: Language and higher education development in East Asia

10.25 – 10.40

Professor Othman Barnawi: 'Islam-Language-Transnationalism' in Higher Education

10.40 – 10.55

Dr Iker Erdocia: Does mastery of the English language dictate career progression in Irish universities?

10.55 – 11.00

Comfort break

11.00 – 11. 20

Panel discussion with Dr Sal Consoli, Dr Zhen Li (李蓁), and Dylan Williams

11.20 – 12.00

Q&A chaired by: Ibrar Bhatt, Sal Consoli, Dylan Williams


1. Professor Rui Yang (杨锐), Professor, Dean of Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR: Constructing a bi/multi-cultural intellectual mind: Language and higher education development in East Asia

This presentation attempts to interrogate the prevalent theorisation of East Asia’s recent higher education development that is based exclusively on the earlier experience in the West. Since the late 19th century, modern higher education has been well established in East Asia as a late comer, with an institutionalised Western knowledge system at its core. At the same time, traditional thoughts and values continue to function in a powerful yet tacit manner in East Asian societies. There has been much tension between the imposed explicit knowledge and the implicit indigenous knowledge, creating great difficulties for university academics throughout the region. Against such a historical backdrop, however, East Asian intellectuals are fast becoming bi/multi-cultural as devoted students of Western learning for over a century. Within a context of unprecedented human connectivity, being able to learn from other cultures has become crucially important for the sustainable development of any society. With clear implications for the English language policies and practices in the region, such an intellectual mind prepares East Asian scholars well for tackling the significant challenges of our times.

2. Professor Othman Barnawi, Professor in Language and Education, Royal Commission for Yanbu Colleges and Institutes, Saudi Arabia: 'Islam-Language-Transnationalism' in Higher Education

In my provocation, I argue that the nexus between transnationalism and language teacher education remains under-explored at the epistemological, theoretical, historical, and practical levels. I frame and examine language teacher education in relation to transnationalism from an Islamic locus of enunciation. Specifically, I offer nuanced insights into how conceptualizing and enacting language teacher education through what I term “Islam-language-transnationalism” could enable language students-teachers-educators-researchers in the Gulf and beyond to theorize teaching/learning from their own experience. The premise here is to prompt students-teachers-educators-researchers to make sense of language teacher education in ways that account for their local contexts instead of borrowing theories under the assumption of universality of knowledge. To substantiate the above arguments, I demonstrate how “Islam-language-transnationalism” may provide possibilities for de-centering language teacher education policies in higher education, research, curricula, and classroom pedagogical practices. I close by inviting applied linguists and higher education researchers to critically reflect on their conceptions, enactments, and commitments to transnationalism in language teacher education.

3. Dr Iker Erdocia, Assistant Professor, Director of Research, School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies (SALIS), Dublin City University, Ireland: Does mastery of the English language dictate career progression in Irish universities?

This provocation seeks to add to the ongoing scholarly debate about linguistic privilege in academia. I will critically explore the experiences of multilingual scholars with English as an Additional Language (EAL) working at primarily English-speaking universities in Ireland. Drawing on a selection of examples from a larger empirical work (Erdocia & Soler, 2023), I will discuss the language-related challenges encountered by EAL scholars and the affordances provided by these Anglophone universities. Aligning with the event’s focus on higher education’s ‘Language Problem,’ (see Bhatt et al 2022) I will advance two main arguments: First, I will argue against the current invisibility of multilingualism at the institutional level. Second, I will contend that the complex interplay between language and other academic factors prompts us to move beyond simplistic hierarchies of academic privilege or disadvantage based solely on a scholar’s first or additional language.

Speaker bios

Prof Rui Yang: and Dean of the Faculty of Education, author of ‘The Chinese Idea of a University: Phoenix Reborn’

Prof Othman Barnawi: Professor in Language and Education, Royal Commission for Yanbu Colleges and Institutes, Founder & Series Editor: Global South Perspectives on TESOL

Dr Iker Erdocia: Assistant Professor and Director of Research at the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies (SALIS). President of the Irish Association for Applied Linguistics, member of the Linguistic Justice Society


A recording of this session can be accessed by clicking here.

April 12th, 2024 from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
Online event - link will be provided
Resource 1 Iker_Erdocia.pdf
Resource 2 Othman_Barnawi.pdf
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