Marketing Authenticities: The Changing Nature of Academic Labour on an International Branch Campus in Vietnam

A stock photo marketing an authentic reflection of academia to an unnamed audience"

Event details

PhD Seminar

Date & time

Tuesday 16 October 2018


Chancelry 10T1 Research Training


Jodie-Lee Trembath


Jodie-Lee Trembath

International branch campuses (IBCs), much like the foreign subsidiaries of multinational corporations, are an example of the global spread of Western knowledge and practices, particularly into countries in the Global South such as China, Malaysia and Vietnam. Previous literature has shown that these campuses are characterised by poor retention of foreign staff as well as low morale. This thesis draws attention to systemic issues and problems in the global higher education sector by taking a bottom-up approach, exploring the lived experiences of academics at an IBC in Vietnam, to better understand these higher-order structural concerns. It is my position in this thesis that IBCs are not only extreme forms of global, neoliberal academia; I contend that they provide a glimpse into the future of academia that awaits all universities heading down the global, neoliberal path. Without this knowledge, localised attempts to improve academic working life will only ever be partial and ineffective, while our understandings of the effects of these forces will continue to lack necessary context.

Therefore, in this thesis, I ask:

How are academic-ness and academic work enacted at an international branch campus of a “global” university? How do the forces of neoliberalisation and globalisation intersect on international branch campuses (IBCs)? And, most importantly; What do these intersections mean for contemporary academic work and identities? I argue that these intersections of neoliberalisation and globalisation with the academic profession create what I am calling “marketable authenticity”. Building on Dean MacCannell’s (1973) notion of staged authenticity in tourist contexts, I contend that a global, neoliberal university can come to internalise itself as a type of ‘staged back-region’ of Western academia for a non-Western audience to gaze upon and engage with. Foreign academics are presented as props to decorate a backdrop of ‘world-class’ Western facilities, in order to demonstrate certain facades of ‘authentic’ Western academic-ness to prospective students and parents (read: customers). At the same time, said students and parents seek the opportunity to verify the authenticity of the university’s international credentials through particular proxy visual indicators: namely, the presence of (specifically white, and preferably male) foreign academics on staff.

For the academics at my field site, this catalysed significant changes to the nature of academic labour. That is not to say, however, that these academics either accepted the changes to their professional status, holus-bolus, nor that they were absolute victims to a loss of agency. This thesis explores the tensions that can occur when conflicting notions of academic authenticity collide.

I make these claims and answer these questions using data from my long-term ethnographic field study conducted at the pseudonymous “International-Vietnamese University” (IVU). An extreme example of the intersection between neoliberalisation and globalisation, IVU is a privately-operated international branch campus of a Western university, based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where 80% of the academic staff are ‘foreigners’ and the diversity of staffing ranges across 28 different nationalities.

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