Rethinking international education through the concept of capabilities

A bridge to development in Asia’s emergent knowledge societies


  • Lien Pham Department of Sociology, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia



This paper calls for rethinking international education towards a transformative agenda to engender international students’ self-determination, self-reflection, agency and citizenship that would enable them to make valuable personal and social change for them and their communities when they return to their homeland. It argues for a reconceptualisation of the vision of international education to include both the instrumental objectives of skills development and jobs procurement, as well as the intrinsic value of creating substantive opportunities for people to live the lives they value. It further argues that there is a need to move research from institutional perspectives of international education providers to those of international students and graduates focussing on their personal and civic commitment within their home communities.

In the context of this paper, the terms “West” and “Western” generally refer to countries in the geographical regions of Europe including the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific region. The terms “Anglo-West” and “Euro-America” are also used interchangeably with the same meaning. The terms “Asia” and “Asian” generally refer to countries in the geographical regions of East and South East Asia, and South Asia.

This paper has four parts. The first part sketches the current discourses on international education in the emerging knowledge societies of Asia. It critiques the parochial Anglo-Western values in international education discourses and calls for contending viewpoints that consider diversity of students’ cultural and social values. The second part presents Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (CA) as an alternative framework for viewing and evaluating international education. The third part discusses the operationalising aspects of the CA in the practical contexts of its philosophical status and considers the potential of its epistemological benefits. The last part concludes the paper by summarising the discussion about the merits of the CA as a conceptualising and evaluating tool for international education.


Agee, Mark. and Crocker, David. “Operationalizing the capability approach to assessing well-being.” The Journal of Socio-Economics 46 (2013): 80-86. doi: 10.1016/j.socec.2013.07.003

Alkire, Sabina. Valuing freedoms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. doi: 10.1093/0199245797.001.0001

Altbach, Phillip. “The New Internationalism: foreign students and scholars.” Studies in Higher Education 14.2 (1989): 125-136. doi: 10.1080/03075078912331377446

Altbach, Phillip. “Perils of internationalising higher education: an Asian perspective.” International Higher Education 15 (1999): 4-5.

Altbach, Phillip and Knight, Jane. “The Internationalization of Higher Education: Motivations and Realities.” Journal of Studies in International Education 11 (2007): 290. doi: 10.1177/1028315307303542

Altbach, Phillip. “What counts for academic productivity in research universities?” University World News Global Edition Issue 320. [Retreived 30 July 2014].

Aman, Robert. “Bridging the gap to those who lack: intercultural education in the light of modernity and the shadow of coloniality” Pedagogy, Culture and Society 21.2 (2013): 279-297. doi: 10.1080/14681366.2012.759139

Ballet, Jerome, Dubois, Jean-Luc and Mahieu, Francois-Regis. “Responsibility for Each Other’s Freedom: Agency as the Source of Collective Capability.” Journal of Human Development 8.2 (2007): 185-201. doi: 10.1080/14649880701371000

Bottery, Michael. “Educational leaders in a globalising world: a new set of priorities?” School Leadership & Management: Formerly School Organisation 26.1 (2006): 5-22.

Brandenburgh, Uwe and de Wit, Hans. “The End of Internationalization.” International Higher Education 62 (2011): 15-17.

Brandenburgh, Uwe. and de Wit, Hans. “Getting internationalization back on track.” IAU Horizons 17.3 and 18.1. (2012). http://www [Retrieved 10 September 2014].

Brooks, Rachel and Waters, Johanna. Student mobilities, migration and the internationalisation of higher education. Palgrave: London (2013).

Chen, Kuan-Hsing. ”Takeuchi Yoshimi’s 1960 ‘Asia as Method’ lecture.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 13.2 (2012): 317-324. doi: 10.1080/14649373.2012.662937

Choi, Po King. “’Weep for the Chinese University’: A Case study of English hegemony and academic capitalism in higher education in Hong Kong.” Journal of Education Policy 25.2 (2010): 233-252. doi: 10.1080/02680930903443886

Clark, David. “The Capability Approach: Its Development, Critiques and Current Advances”. Oxford: The Global Poverty Research Group Working Paper 032. [Retrieved 3 December 2014].

Connell, Raewyn. Southern Theory: the Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.

Connell, Raewyn. “Where in the world does neoliberalism come from?” Theory and Society. Renewal and Critique in Social Theory 43.2 (2014): 117-138. doi: 10.1007/s11186-014-9212-9

Crocker, David. Ethics of Global Development: Agency, Capability, and Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511492594

de Wit, Hans and Jooste, Nico. “Can international education be truly equal and global?” University World News Global Edition Issue 308 (2014). [Retrieved 30 July 2014].

de Wit, Hans. “Misconceptions about (the end of) internationalization.” University World News Global Edition Issue 329 (2014). [Retrieved 30 July 2014].

Dreze, Jean and Sen, Amartya. India, Economic Development and Social Opportunity, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Egron-Polak, Eva. “Internationalization of higher education – an introduction.” IAU Horizons 17.3 and 18.1. (2012). http://www [Retrieved 10 September 2014].

Gustavsson, Bernt. “Bildung and the road from a classical into a global and postcolonial concept” Confero 2.1 (2014): 109-131. doi: 10.3384/confero.2001-4562.140604b

Harris, Alma, Jones, Michelle, Sharma, Sailesh and Kanna, Sathiamoorthy. “Leading educational transformation in Asia: sustaining the knowledge society.” Asia Pacific Journal of Education 33.2 (2013): 212-221. doi: 10.1080/02188791.2013.782802

Hill, Marianne. “Development as empowerment.” Feminist Economics 9.2-3 (2003): 117-135.

Hudson, Ross. “Re-thinking internationalization – Knight’s perspectives.” IAU Horizons 17.3 and 18.1. (2012). http://www [Retrieved 10 September 2014].

Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals, Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, [Retrieved 6 May 2013]

Kell, Peter and Vogl, Gillian. International Students in the Asia Pacific, Education in the Asia Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects 17, 2012.

Knight, Jane. “Internationalization and the Competitiveness Agenda.” Higher Education, Policy, and the Global Competition Phenomenon. Eds. Laura Portnoi, Val Rust and Sylvia Bagley. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 205.

Knight, Jane. “The limits of soft power in higher education.” University World News Global Edition Issue 305 (2014). [Retrieved 3 February 2014]

Landry, Donna and Maclean, Gerard. “Subaltern Talk: Interview with the Editors (1993-1994). The Spivak Reader. Eds. Donna Landry and Gerard Maclean. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Macgregor, Karen. “Global International HE associations call for global equity.” University World News Global Edition Issue 303 (2014). [Retrieved 30 July 2014].

Mahbubani, Kishore. “Can Asians Think?” Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2007.

Mahbubani, Kishore. “The New Asian Hemisphere. The irresistible shift of global power to the East”. New York: Public Affairs, 2008.

Marginson, Simon. “Global field and global imagining: Bourdieu and worldwide higher education.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 29.3 (2008): 303-315. doi: 10.1080/01425690801966386

Marginson, Simon. “Have global academic flows created a global labour market?” Geographies of Knowledge, Geometries of Power: Higher Education in the 21st Century (World Year Book of Education 2008). Eds. Debbie Epstein, Rebecca Boden, Rosemary Deem, Fazal Rizvi and Susan Wright. New York: Routledge, 2007. 305-318.

Marginson, Simon and Considine, Mark. The enterprise university: Power, governance and reinvention in Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Marr, David. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, London: University of California Press, 1981.

Massey, Doreen. “The spatial construction of youth cultures.” Cool places: Geographies of youth cultures. Eds. Tracey Skelton and Gill Valentine. London: Routledge, 1998. 121-9.

Murray, Dennis, Hall, Rebecca, Leask, Betty, Marginson, Simon and Ziguras, Chris. “State of current research in international education” Background paper for AEI supported International Education Research policy symposium. Victoria: LH Martin Institute, 2011. 4-5.

Nahas, George. “Internationalization and values.” IAU Horizons 17.3 and 18.1. (2012). http://www [Retrieved 10 September 2014].

Ng, Shun Wing. “Rethinking the mission of internationalization of higher education in the Asia-Pacific region.” Compare 42.3 (2012): 439.

Nussbaum, Martha. “Nature, Function and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 6 (Supplementary Volume). Helsinki: World Institute for Development Economics Research, 1998. 145-184.

Olssen, Mark and Peters, Michael. “Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism.” Journal of Education Policy 20.3 (2005): 313.

Organisation of Economic and Development (OECD). Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. (2013). doi: 10.1787/eag-2013-en [Retrieved 19 September 2014].

Ozga, Jenny and Lingard, Bob. “Globalisation, education policy and politics” The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Education Policy and Politics. Eds. Bob Lingard and Jenny Ozga. London: Routledge, 2007. 65-82.

Patrick, Fiona. “Neoliberalism, the Knowledge Economy, and the Learner: Challenging the Inevitability of the Commodified self as an Outcome of Education.” ISRN Education (2013): 1.

Pennycook, Alastair. The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. Harlow: Longman, 1994.

Pham, Lan Huong and Fry, Gerard. “Education and Economic, Political, and Social Change in Vietnam.” Educational Research for Policy and Practice 3. (2004): 199–222. doi: 10.1007/s10671-005-0678-0

Pham, Lien. “Social Structures in the Economy of International Education: Perspectives from Vietnamese International Tertiary students”. Globalisation, Societies and Education 11.1 (2013): 39-60. doi: 10.1080/14767724.2012.690308

Phillipson, Robert. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Pogge, Thomas. “Can the Capability Approach be Justified?” Philosophical Topics 30.2 (2002): 167-228. doi: 10.5840/philtopics200230216

Rhoades, Robert and Torres, Carlos. The university, state and market: The political economy of globalization in the Americas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Robertson, Susan. “Europe, competitiveness and higher education: An evolving project.” Globalisation and Europeanisation in Education. Eds. Roger Dale and Susan Robertson. Oxford: Symposium Books, 2009. 65-83.

Robeynes, Ingrid. “Three models of education: Rights, Capabilities and Human Capital.” Theory and Research in Education 4.1 (2006): 69-84. doi: 10.1177/1477878506060683

Robeynes, Ingrid. “The Capability Approach: a theoretical survey.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 6.1 (2005): 93-117. doi: 10.1080/146498805200034266

Robeynes, Ingrid. “The Capability Approach.” in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2011. htttp:/ [Retrieved 8 October 2013].

Sandel, Michael. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2010, 103-116.

Sen, Amartya. “Well-being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984.” The Journal of Philosophy 82.4 (1985): 169-221. doi: 10.2307/2026184

Sen, Amartya. “Markets and Freedoms: Achievements and Limitations of the Market Mechanism in Promoting Individual.” Oxford Economic Papers, New Series 45.4 (1993): 519-541.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sen, Amartya. “Symposium on Amartya Sen’s philosophy: 4 reply.” Economics and Philosophy 17.1 (2001): 51-66. doi: 10.1017/S0266267101000141

Takeuchi, Yoshimi. ‘Asia as Method’, Hu Dongshu (trans) Taiwan Radical Quarterly in Social Studies (2007).

Teichler, Ulrich. “The changing debate on internationalization of higher education.” Higher Education 48.5 (2004): 5-26. doi: 10.1023/B:HIGH.0000033771.69078.41

Turner, David. “Higher education: Centre stage or in the wings of the knowledge economy – A review essay.” International Journal of Educational Development (2012): 3. doi: 10.1016/j.ijedudev.2012.02.006

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Towards Knowledge Societies. Paris: UNESCO, 2005.

Unterhalter, Elaine. “Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: the potential of Sen’s capability approach for sociologists of education.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 24.5 (2003): 665-669. doi: 10.1080/0142569032000148708

Unterhalter, Elaine. “Education.” An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach. Eds. Severine Deneulin. with Lila Shahani. UK: Earthscan, 2009. 207-217.

Walker, Melanie and Unterhalter, Elaine, eds. Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education. New York: Palgrave, 2007. doi: 10.1057/9780230604810

Waters, Johanna. “Transnational geographies of academic distinction: the role of social capital in the recognition and evaluation of “overseas”.” Globalisation, Societies and Education 7.2 (2009): 113-129. doi: 10.1080/14767720902907895

Welch, Anthony. “Different paths, one goal: Southeast Asia as knowledge society.’ Asia Pacific Journal of Education 33.2 (2013): 197.

Yang, Rui. “Globalisation and higher education development: A critical analysis.” International Review of Education 49.3-4 (2003): 269-291.