Considering Globalized Christian Supremacy in our Discourse about Higher Education Internationalization

By: Sachi Edwards, Soka University

Author bio: Sachi Edwards is a Lecturer (tenure-track) in the Graduate School of International Peace Studies at Soka University in Tokyo, Japan. With graduate degrees in religious studies and international education policy, she brings an interdisciplinary perspective to the study of internationalization, globalization, and inter-cultural education.

Earlier this year, I moved from the US to Japan and started a new position at Soka University—an overtly Buddhist institution in a country where Christians make up less than 2% of the population. When I reviewed the academic calendar, I was shocked to learn that our fall semester (which begins mid-September and ends in late January) has a full two-week break scheduled, starting a few days before Christmas. Of course, since I have spent the bulk of my academic career researching how Christian supremacy is embedded in higher education (both in the US and globally), this piqued my interest. I started asking around, and learned from my Japanese friends and colleagues that having Christmas off is not common in Japanese universities; after all, it’s not a recognized national holiday, and it’s right in the middle of a semester! “Ahh, yes,” many of them said, “but perhaps it’s an effort to make the academic calendar internationally compatible.” What they didn’t say, but what I knew all too well, was that (Western) Christian culture is globally dominant and that having a two-week break over Christmas would be pleasing to the kinds of international students and faculty Japanese universities may be trying to recruit. 

Indeed, the Japanese government has been actively promoting and funding higher education internationalization initiatives for the last 30 years or so, and concerns about the (in)compatibility of the academic calendar are often cited as a barrier to student and researcher mobility (Ota, 2018). When I dug deeper, I realized that among those institutions receiving special government funding for the express purpose of raising their international profiles (my university is one of them), many of them similarly have a two-week break over Christmas. This is particularly interesting to me because, in discourse about the Christian supremacy embedded in US higher education, the academic calendar is regularly one of the most prominent topics raised. So, how does the example of my Japanese Buddhist university’s Christmas break open up a conversation about how Christian supremacy in higher education is increasingly a global phenomenon, perpetuated in part by internationalization efforts? Where do Christianity and Christian supremacy fit into our discourse about how dominant models of internationalization are entangled with the spread of Westernization, marketization, and neocolonialism? I offered my reflections on these questions in my recent presentation to the Critical Internationalization Studies network, and will summarize them briefly below. 

A core tenant of critical religious studies scholarship is that theistic belief and rules governing behavior are inappropriate metrics for defining religion. Instead, a more inclusive and accurate way to understand religion is to examine the way it shapes a society’s norms and values. From this perspective, the Christian cultural worldview is foundational to what we understand as modern Western secularism and science. Sociologists explain this (Durkheim, 1912/1995; Spickard, 2017), decolonial scholars explain this (Mignolo, 2011; Quijano, 2000), and those who approach the study of religion from a non-Christian framework explain this (Deloria, 2003; Masuzawa, 2005). Christian supremacy, then, is the idea that the Christian cultural worldview at the heart of Western secularism and science is superior to other onto-epistemologies; and it is spread around the world in part through internationalization efforts that attempt to universalize Western approaches to teaching, learning, inquiry, mobility, financing and determining quality.  

Western models of teaching, learning, and inquiry, for instance, emphasize liberal education and positivist empirical science, along with the assumption that these approaches are culturally neutral and universally applicable. Liberalism and rationalism, however, are products of the Enlightenment—i.e., they developed in a culturally Christian context—and maintain important elements of the Christian worldview such as individualism, universalism, anthropocentrism, and linear time. Yet, we rarely name liberal education and Western science as being Christian. Instead, their supposedly neutral, secular status is used to position them as modern and superior to any pedagogy or philosophy deemed religio-culturally rooted.

Likewise, the idea that we can and should develop instruments to compare education systems and institutions across disparate contexts relies on the universalizing logic of the Christian worldview. Tröhler and Maricic (2021) explain how ideas about standardization that began with the Scottish Protestant Reformation were then institutionalized by Christians at Teachers College and the Carnegie Foundation, and eventually led to the creation of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The same movement led to the creation and popularization of global university rankings that are so influential today—rankings that consistently place Christian-origin institutions at the top; e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and others. As Shahjahan and Edwards (2021) note, those institutions then guide the aspirations of institutions around the world. 

The marketization that comes along with the spread of Westernization and competition for high ranking should also be recognized as a Christian export. Capitalism, after all, was developed by the Church and imposed on colonies as a system of labor and economy that would ensure the maintenance of the Church’s financial and political power. Both then and now, acceptance of capitalism is seen as a marker of modernity and progress, manifesting in higher education through, among other things, the promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Even the way we understand mobility is shaped by Christianity. Through colonialism, and the process of political decolonization in some places, the Church established nation state borders that did not previously exist, and were usually quite arbitrary. The creation of those borders has had extremely violent effects that many communities around the world are still experiencing; the partitioning of India/South Asia, for example. Yet, these borders are how we define what is (inter)national, erroneously homogenizing diverse communities within those arbitrary borders. 

My work in Japan has exposed me to histories and current practices of internationalization within higher education that exemplify both the global nature of Christian supremacy and resistance to it. I encourage others to consider the ways Christian supremacy functions in the forms and contexts of internationalization you operate within. Then, importantly, I encourage you to overtly name Christian supremacy when you write or talk about internationalization. Ignoring it—the way it masquerades as secularism; the way it intersects with White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism; and the way it perpetuates epistemicide—simply allows Christian supremacy to proceed unchecked. To be sure, there’s much more we need to learn and understand about Christian supremacy in higher education internationalization, and we need to be willing to talk about it in order to do that. 


Deloria Jr. V. (2003). God is red: A Native view of religion (30th anniversary edition). Fulcrum Publishing. 

Durkheim, É. (1995). The elementary forms of the religious life. (K. Fields, Trans.). New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1912)

Masuzawa, T. (2005). The invention of world religions, or, How European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism. University of Chicago Press.

Mignolo, W. (2011). The darker side of Western modernity. Duke University Press.

Ota, H. (2018). Internationalization of higher education: Global trends and Japan’s challenges. Educational studies in Japan: International yearbook, 12(2018), 91-105.

Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South, 1(3), 533-580. 

Shahjahan, R. A. & Edwards, K. T. (2021). Whiteness as futurity and globalization of higher education. Higher Education.

Spickard, J. (2017). Alternative sociologies of religion: Through non-Western eyes. New York: New York University Press.

Tröhler, D. & Maricic, V. (2021). Data, trust and faith: The unheeded religious roots of modern education policy. Globalisation, Societies and Education. 

Balancing International Education and its Carbon Footprint

by Dr. Pii-Tuulia Nikula and Adinda van Gaalen

Suggested Citation: Nikula, PT, & Gaalen, A. van (2021). Balancing International Education and its Carbon Footprint (Critical Internationalization Studies Network Newsletter). Critical Voices 1(4). 

In the era that we first travelled abroad for our studies, there was little discussion about the environmental footprint related to flying. There were also limited alternatives to physical mobility with the internet being in its infancy. Now we know that the carbon footprint of student mobility is considerable (Shields, 2019) and that a number of virtual alternatives exist. But does that mean that these new modes of internationalisation are equivalent? And can we expect current and future students to be satisfied with these alternatives? Aren’t they entitled to the experiences our generation has had? Are there other caveats to consider?

Personally, we have derived significant value from our international education experiences. Getting to know areas, cultures and people in other parts of the world continues to have great appeal and benefits to individuals, countries and our global community. At best, international education can create global citizens by enhancing tolerance and intercultural understanding–essential skills when trying to solve global issues such as the climate crisis. How do we protect and amplify this impact whilst taking responsibility for our environmental footprint? 

A number of greener modes of international education exist. Examples of such modes include better utilization of internationalization at home, transnational education opportunities replacing student travel and enhanced use of online/distance delivery, such as virtual exchanges/collaborative online international learning. For physical mobility, institutions can incentivise more regional mobility, low(er) carbon means of transport, and, as a last resort, compensate for all travel-related emissions.

A number of dilemmas warrant further consideration. For instance, more regional mobility may result in a narrower understanding of the world and different cultures. Also, lower carbon modes of transportation can mean that students will spend less time at their destination. Moreover, it has to be acknowledged that, hitherto, physical student mobility has been an option for a small group of students only (Salisbury et al., 2011). Virtual mobility may break with this inequality by, in principle, offering more opportunities to develop international competencies. However, this option may not be feasible for students in many countries that still lack stable and widespread internet. Hence, virtual mobility and other alternative modes of internationalization are not unproblematic. 

  In 2019, the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE) was established as a grassroots initiative to incentivize international education practitioners across the globe to step up and act on climate. CANIE’s work has enhanced the sector’s understanding of the issue and available solutions. In recent years, there has been a wider acknowledgment of this topic in the media targeted to higher education and international education professionals as well as by a growing number of academics in the field (see also Hale, 2019; Long et al. 2014; Nikula, 2019; Rumbley, 2020; Shields, 2019).

However, more research is required to explore the intersection of international education practice/policy and the climate crisis. To balance the benefits and the footprint associated with international education, one of the areas of future research should focus on expanding the excellent work done by Robin Shields (2019). This could include research measuring emissions of non-degree-seeking mobility, such as study abroad/short-term mobility programmes (e.g., Hale, 2019; Long et al. 2014 ) and international mobility associated with compulsory schooling. In addition, a better understanding of all emissions related to student mobility is required, such as emissions related to other travel by students/family members (Davies & Dunk, 2015), overall home-destination country differences in emissions, and emissions related to different delivery modes, such as virtual versus physical mobility (see e.g., Versteijlen et al. 2017).  

A different perspective on this topic is from the educational point of view. Which alternatives to traveling deliver equal learning outcomes for students? Can students be stimulated to adopt greener lifestyles through global citizenship skills development? If that is the case, do these effects outweigh the carbon footprint of developing those competencies? Inclusion and equal opportunities are important values. What is a fair distribution of travel miles among staff and students? 

From the organisational perspective: which policy measures are most effective in reducing carbon emissions of international education while posing the least limitations? How can national or institutional policies on internationalisation be connected to sustainability policies? (van Gaalen et al., 2020). What role can grant schemes play in greening mobility? How can a change in culture in terms of the choice to travel be achieved? (De Jonge Akademie, 2020; Wynes et al., 2019) 

The intersection of international education practice/policy and the climate crisis requires further examination. In this post, we have suggested questions that warrant research by those involved in critical internationalization studies. Moreover, we have highlighted a number of dilemmas that practitioners need to consider when designing low(er) carbon international education alternatives.

About the Authors:

Dr. Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a senior lecturer at Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand. Most of Pii-Tuulia’s research focuses on sustainability and ethical behavior within the international education industry with an evolving interest in environmental questions. Pii-Tuulia is also one of the co-founders of CANIE: Climate Action Network for International Educators.

Adinda van Gaalen is a senior policy officer at Nuffic in the Netherlands and part time PhD candidate at Ghent University in Belgium. Her research focuses on ethical aspects of internationalisation strategies and policies, including the carbon footprint. Adinda has been involved in the development of a Green Travel Policy at both Nuffic and Ghent University.


Davies, J.C., & Dunk, R. M. (2015). Flying along the supply chain: Accounting for emissions from student air travel in the higher education sector. Carbon Management, 6(5–6), 233–246.

De Jonge Akademie (2020). Flying high but flying less. An overview study of Dutch university policies to reduce carbon emissions from research related air travel. 

Gaalen, A. van, Huisman, J., & Sidhu, R. (2020). National policies on education abroad – addressing undesired consequences. In A. Ogden, B. Streitwieser, & C. van Mol (Eds.), Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship and Practice. (pp. 203–217). Routledge. 

Hale, B.W. (2019). Wisdom for Traveling Far: Making Educational Travel Sustainable. Sustainability, 11(11), 3048. MDPI AG. Retrieved from 

Long, J., Vogelaar, A., & Hale, B.W. (2014). Toward sustainable educational travel. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 22(3), 421–439. 

Nikula, PT. (2019). Towards carbon neutral international education. EAIE, Spring Forum Magazine, 12 – 13.

Rumbley, L. (2020). Internationalization of Higher Education and the Future of the Planet.  International Higher Education, 100, 32-24.

Salisbury, M. H., Paulsen, M. B., & Pascarella, E. T. (2011). Why do All the Study Abroad Students Look Alike? Applying an Integrated Student Choice Model to Explore Differences in the Factors that Influence White and Minority Students’ Intent to Study Abroad. Research in Higher Education, 52(2), 123–150. 

Shields, R. (2019). The sustainability of international higher education: Student mobility and global climate change. Journal of Cleaner Production, 217, 594–602.          

Versteijlen, M., Perez Salgado, F., Janssen Groesbeek, M., & Counotte, A. (2017). Pros and cons of online education as a measure to reduce carbon emissions in higher education in the Netherlands. Sustainability Governance, 28, 80–89. 

Wynes, S., Donner, S.D., Tannason, S., & Nabors, N. (2019). Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success. Journal of Cleaner Production, 226, 959–967. 

Redesigning Internationalisation with Beginner’s Mind

Note: We are currently accepting responses to this Critical Voices piece of approximately 500 words from individuals involved in international education practice and thought leadership. We are able to provide an electronic copy of Dr. Unkule’s book to readers who would like to write a response (please email us at to request a copy). Responses can take any form the author wishes (Practice Brief, Research Brief, or Critical Voices piece). We will publish responses together in a thematic issue of the newsletter to be released in July 2021. For full consideration, please submit your response by June 30, 2021 via this form and select the option “Response to a previously published essay or brief.”

By Dr. Kalyani Unkule– Associate Professor, JGLS and Director & Head of the Office of Alumni Relations, Jindal Global University

I wrote the book Internationalising the University: A Spiritual Approach on an invitation from the editors of the Spirituality, Religion, and Education series of Palgrave Macmillan. As a scholar based in the global south, I felt that the time had come to stand up and say: “listen, we too have something to contribute to on-going discussions about the future of education. If years of teaching and practicing higher education internationalization in a part of the world that was perpetually dismissed as a “sending region” and as a passive recipient of “capacity building” is what it takes to find your voice and summon your courage, then so be it.” And so, I channeled Tagore’s message that it is not the parched desert that receives the bounty of the rain but the flowing river, dug deep into my training in political economy, international relations and global history, and got to it. 

Since my foray into internationalization practice was owed to a passion for intercultural dialogue and understanding, the key motivation for me was to free up the practice to actually achieve that, rather than continue as an accessory to the hegemonic enterprise of knowledge creation. Within this broad framework, establishing the link between the politics of globalization and neo-imperialism on the one hand and the hegemonic and homogenizing stance of Eurocentric science on the other was imperative, as was demonstrating how internationalization of education was harnessed throughout the twentieth century to serve these agendas – something I attempted in the chapters called Anitya (the impermanence of joy and sorrow) and Jian’ai (universal love or impartial concern). One frequently falls into the trap of resurrecting episodes from history to support the claim that “it was in fact we who came up with these bright ideas,” all the while not realizing that we are undermining diversity and impoverishing thought. When I give the cultural exchanges between ancient China and ancient India their due place in the annals of internationalization, I try my best to avoid this pitfall. The jump from science to spirituality is slightly easier to make than it used to be but for me, ideas from religion and spirituality were really a proxy for “other ways of knowing”. The chapter Ilm (knowledge) delves into the intersections of Science and Spirituality and outlines the overlap and divergence between varied understandings of the terms “Religion” and “Spirituality”: not to indulge in pedantic hair-splitting but to take stock of what is gained and what is lost when we sacrifice other ways of knowing at the altar of rational positivist science. 

The final chapter of the book is titled Shoshin (beginners’ mind) in the hope that those who see promise in the internationalization project will go back to the drawing board with a beginner’s mind, recognizing that the significance of their mission demands intentionality and dynamism. I call on us to roundly jettison a superficial and instrumental view of intercultural competence which essentializes and stereotypes other cultures (and to the critical mind smacks of a deep-seated coloniality). I remind us that nurturing a pluriversal knowledge commons requires first and foremost that we take the trusteeship of our local particulars seriously, put to rest those tired associations of “global” which no longer serve us, and open up our practices to be suffused with the eccentricities of the glocal. The spiritual approach to internationalization cares more about self-discovery through study abroad and triggers the radical realization that we share so much though we may all value different things. 

The book was published in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the dominant model of the international education system, and for that reason is possibly receiving greater attention now. As tickled as my inner nerd is about having added to the world’s stock of things to read, my hunch is that this work will help establish the great potential of practice to contribute to discourse, and in that spirit, I look forward to reactions and feedback from my fellow-practitioners.  

Author bio: Dr. Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor, JGLS and Director & Head of the Office of Alumni Relations, Jindal Global University. She is also a visiting professor at ISDE Law and Business School in Spain and Stockholm University Faculty of Law in Sweden. Having completed her BA and MA degrees respectively in Economics and Social Work, in 2007 she received the Erasmus Mundus scholarship to pursue MA/MSc Global Studies at London School of Economics and University of Leipzig. Her doctoral work at Maurer School of Law, Indiana University, was at the intersection of international relations theory and international law. Kalyani regularly appears as an expert commentator on global affairs on India’s most respected national news network NDTV 24/7.