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Elizabeth Buckner’s global journey to understanding higher education

January 26, 2021

By Perry King

Elizabeth Buckner

Backed by a SSHRC Insight Grant, Elizabeth Buckner's current research is examining the effects of private higher education on access and inequalities in higher education. 

Back in a time when everyone could work abroad and travel more freely, Elizabeth Buckner lived in Morocco for two years after finishing her undergraduate studies.

As a Fulbright grantee, the Assistant Professor in OISE’s Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education arrived in North Africa to research the growth of English language learning there. “I was studying the growth of English as this new sort of language of power in Morocco, because it was colonized by the French and French is the second language and the language of economic power,” said Buckner, who joined OISE in 2017.

“I was looking at how English was emerging as this alternate powerful language in the country. And, and initially I was like why are they in competition with one another?”

In Rabat, the Moroccan capital, Buckner carried out surveys with young people to understand their motivations for studying English, and the role that English played in their conceptions of their present and future lives.

Languages meant different things for different groups. Upper middle-class Moroccans, knew French well and learned English as a third (or fourth) language. “For them, English was just an another language that allowed them to connect, and their aspirations were very high to go work in like global corporations or in journalism,” she said.

Lower middle-class kids spoke Arabic as their first language and many didn't know French very well at all. “They really did not like French it would have been like crammed down their throat,” she described. “They were turning to English as this alternate sort of escape route as a way that you could enter the global economy on your own terms.”

They were interested in teaching and entering tourism and informal economies, mostly. “Yet English was a way of sort of what I call ‘evading’ the power of French in the country,” said Buckner, who attended Swarthmore College – which is a liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia.

“I became really interested in globalization broadly, how it was filtering down and affecting young people's lives,” said Buckner.

It does not escape her that she was an American who was nearly the same age as her students and had not yet earned her graduate degrees but working as a full-fledged professor for a major university in Rabat. “And that’s what really changed my interest from being more interested in language to being interested in how higher education in particular plays a really important role in these global processes,” she said, calling the experience an “eye-opener.”

And her eye continues to be trained on the Middle East, even as the pandemic unfortunately limits her from visiting and collaborating with peers in person. To date, Buckner – who earned her masters and doctorates from Stanford University in California – has published 27 peer reviewed journal articles, three book chapters and 14 policy papers on the subject of international higher education.

Recently, thanks to a SSHRC Insight Grant, her research is examining the effects of private higher education on access and inequalities in higher education. She has also turned her focus to a topic closer to home — how Canadian colleges and universities are internationalizing their student bodies, teaching, and research.

For Buckner, the pandemic is highlighting new forms of interconnectedness that is “forcing us to re-visit long-held beliefs about globalization and higher education,” she says. “For example, for so long, we have generally assumed that internationalization requires international travel – but now COVID has questioned that assumption, by showing us new virtual ways to interact and learn across borders.”

She’s currently hoping to conduct a project in the coming years, which she calls The Future of Internationalization. “I hope to be examining what the future of internationalization looks like for universities around the world in this new post-COVID era,” she says.

She’s also been thinking a lot about a new strand of research on the role of higher education institutions in supporting sustainable development. Universities are recognized as important leaders in society, and have been integral to changing their societies “by galvanizing thinking and social movements around race, gender and human rights – among many other areas,” she says.

Increasingly, they are being asked to support the United Nations’ broad development agenda known as the Sustainable Development Goals.

“So, one of the areas I’m planning to research over the next few years is how universities are incorporating sustainability and sustainable development into their missions and operations,” she says.

Buckner, before arriving at OISE, had travelled a lot in her work – from California, to New York, to Washington D.C. and points abroad. She is glad to have landed at OISE, which is a strong hub for both comparative and higher education – many American universities don’t specialize in both, she says. Her goal, after all that travelling, is to stay put. 

“I was just very excited to come here to be able to essentially have a world-class platform to do research on comparative higher education because I didn't have that before,” she says.

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