VI. Moving Forward

“Words Make Worlds”

Pablo Idahosa

Abstract colourful painting.
Photo by: Robert Keane


When an academic or policy-orientated conference is said to produce more questions than answers, it can sometimes be understood in at least two ways. Either the conference themes, papers/presentations and discussions lacked direction and sufficient cogency; or, that the generative richness of the themes, ideas and initiatives engendered demands for more deliberation, providing resources for more substantive discussions to operationalize possibilities into practicable, but also, hopefully ethically and equity orientated outcomes.


The latter was provided through plenaries, presenters and interlocuters; an array of ideas, practices, and possible ways to bridge theory to practice and policy by academics, students, practitioners and institutional policy-makers who addressed or tackled a re-thinking of the shifting understandings of forms of international exchanges and mobilities, prior to and through the many logistical constraints set by COVID-19. Theoretical, conceptual, communicative and experientially first-hand, descriptive case illustrations through different mediums and platforms presented a timely moment to reflect equally upon some of the constraints along with the successes of certain existing practices faced during COVID-19. The conference imagined mobilities and exchanges beyond always uncertain futures, which COVID-19 has underscored and exacerbated, especially, but not only, the inequalities built into various exclusions that many students might experience. From an inclusive, equity or access standpoint, not all participation in mobilities and exchanges are equal. Exchanges between, and mobilities for, academics and those who administratively represent institutions are qualitatively not the same as these between students. For students exchanges might mean real mobility to another place, not just online “exchanges”, and which might be a one off, or for whom they might be a steppingstone to many other mobile, exchange and even research and career opportunities.


Without addressing all these ideas and practices, among the various equity constituencies recognized through which some operated, were refugees, the rural poor, marginalized women, indigenous, racial and ethnic minorities, and many poorer students displaced from, or having diminished access to, educational resources and institutions under COVID-19. Also recognized among the mixed and unequal experiences of COVID-19 were some of the unevenly distributed regional exchange initiatives; the sometimes unequal collaborative exchanges between some universities in the global north and global south; and deepening digital divides, one of which was identified through the more affluent beneficiaries of exchanges, mobilities and online capacities. Some of this was spread somewhat (though not always) evenly throughout conference’s themes. However unevenly, it also tried to ensure that various voices from all world regions were represented. Europe and North America were disproportionally represented, as were, obviously, countries that spoke in English, or people who had some familiarity with it. As York is home to a bilingual Campus, Glendon, French was another language that people used to communicate. 

However, distilling key recommendations from such a conference that was a complex and wide-ranging compendium of ideas and initiatives is no small task, even through the lens of ostensibly measurable goals of inclusion and sustainability, and in particular the aspirational and laudable 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and notwithstanding the 169 targets within the indivisible set 17! (Not without contradiction, one participant noted in critically addressing the goals and claims of the SDGs. Some ask for sustainable environmental goals yet assume growth models where environmental concerns are exogenous. Also, much of the commentary of some of the participants made little reference to conference keywords, which were more descriptively alluded to more than explicitly analytically integrated. For the record, equity and inequality considerations can be found in SDGs 1-5 and 8). Further, despite the acknowledgment of the need for the specificity of diversity, the same terms of reference are also eminently contestable, even conceptually ambiguous. In the broadest moralistic sense, most desire some tacit notion of what inclusion and sustainability are, and ethically do right by them in the context of practices that might constitute practicable policy for institutional direction, rather than having to buzzword vagueness, which invocations to both inclusivity and sustainability can (and often have) become.


To be inclusive implies trying to bring resources to those who might suffer from multiple intersectional disadvantages across a specific or a wide range of social and, of course, educational exclusions, whether as choices or rights – who can do what, and what are they not getting that they are entitled or have a right to? To be sustainable implies to make something both viable in that what is enacted has the resources to be maintained over time, and which is this sustainability consonant with the goals of the SDGs, including what is environmentally sustainable. If the conference also sought to highlight how inclusion and sustainability might be re-drawn for universities and institutions of higher education in times of uncertainty, and during a time of questioning the value of certain kinds of mobilities, then the ethical pulse in these practices could not be more relevant, not only for the host institution, York University, but for that matter any institution of higher learning. York itself has mapped across, or illustrates in its academic plans and in some of its strategic practices, a highlighting of particular commitments to strategic goals of internationalization within the wider, though not always specified, responsibilities to inclusivity and sustainability and the institutional obligations to the SDGs across peoples, knowledge and places at and around the university.


If equity and inclusion in education have become central to the responsibilities to SDGs and for UNESCO, then most apposite here for York appears to be upholding the SDG development pledge or promotion for an equivalence of the notion of a shared educational prosperity, analogous to “no one getting left behind”. Might this be an internal policy with regards to mobilities, and how could this actually not just be mapped, but commissioned into concrete practices for those who may not have historically been given opportunities to engage in mobilities and exchange, and thus sustainable in both senses?


In being analogous here, inclusive development implies ensuring that the socioeconomic benefits of economic growth are not concentrated among society’s wealthy or privileged, but rather are shared in general by all people. Is this singular human development norm and metaphor for the inclusive side to material and economic inclusivity an appropriate analogue to the ethical and practical considerations for equitable inclusion and the understanding and recognition of others in everyday life, and to which education plays such a central role? If so, it implies both a measurement and identification of ways in which to remove institutional barriers through encouraging and providing opportunities and resources to increase the access of various groups to development opportunities (Silver, 2015). It is surely one part of an animating purpose of any educational and cultural exchanges and who gets to move, or not, and participate in them—indeed, one of the overarching themes of the conference.


The relevance of the 2030 Agenda here, then, lies in persistent unequal distributions of resources and opportunities, especially among those considered to be systemically excluded because of inequalities across, among others, “gender, remoteness, wealth, disability, ethnicity, language, migration, displacement, incarceration, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, and other beliefs and attitudes” (UNESCO, 2020: 6). As pointed out at the conference, this is often not the case in regards to exchange mobilities of whatever kind, where it is generally those with resources and/or ambition who commonly get to be the beneficiaries of them.


It remains, however, that inclusion, like considerations of excellence and equity, or respectively academic merit and social justice, does not always coincide with the mandates of universities, even when often claiming both for their visioning remits. Social justice and fairness in relation to, for example, academic excellence, are institutional norms not always so easily squared, but which York and other universities claim to aspire to. Even when purposively employed, inclusion itself within broader academic demands can be located between both reservation and/or displacement and even outright invisibility and erasure, especially when considerations of individual, instrumental student educational goals of (self) advancement are seen as paramount.


Like its sustainable and developmental buzzword cognates, inclusive can gain its normative resonance, traction and power through a moral evocation with traits that are often, at best, obliquely ill-defined, and where they encompass many possible meanings (Cornwall, 2007). They can imply different worlds, but they can also be equally veiled in lofty vagueness. To combine inclusivity with sustainability means to ask the question, sustainable for whom? It is not enough to committing to the broad parameters of, for example, social justice mobilities. Universities need to come up with an evaluative process that can serve policy in rethinking the nature of the relationship between mobilities/exchanges and partnerships. If evaluative devices do not always make good policy, policy cannot do without them.


What might be required, like a carbon audit, is a systematic review that measures mobilities for whom and for what? Unlike the tendency to have exchanges with sites that are financially value added, and which become budgetary entries without which universities cannot function, or constantly needs funding from outside sources for, what would one evaluate the content of the learning experience of the ostensive cultural and symbolic capital that students derive from their cultural literacies that are part of the normative justification of internationalization?


When reassessing mobilities induced by COVID, or in looking at new ways to harness technologies of access, an inclusively sustainable policy on mobility might establish genuinely ethical niches in worlds of academic mobilities. Through privileging equity considerations a university can inscribe spaces for those on both sides of the mobility exchange that are genuinely equal in how they are practiced and represented. While in principle striving for universalism of access, it can acknowledge advocacy of those facing specific and often systematic barriers others do not face. Some forms of mobility and contact remain less an extravagance, but a basic necessity that for many can be an underrepresented impossibility. Words not only make worlds; equitable practice make them meaningful possibilities to those excluded from them.



Cornwall, A. (2007). Buzzwords and fuzzwords: deconstructing development discourse. In Development in Practice, 17:4-5, 471-484.

Silver, H. (2015). The contexts of social inclusion. UN DESA Working Paper no. 144. ST/ESA/2015/DWP/144. October. .

UNESCO. (2020). Global education monitoring report 2020: inclusion and education: all means all. UNESCO. Paris, France.