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IAU sets out global agenda on internationalisation

For almost a decade, the International Association of Universities has been conducting global surveys on internationalisation to monitor trends. IAU Secretary-general Eva Egron-Polak, who led a series of discussions at the Going Global 2012 conference, told University World News about the latest state of play and the costs and benefits of internationalisation.

UWN: What has prompted the IAU to examine the positives and negatives of internationalisation at this stage?

Egron-Polak: While the importance and commitment to internationalisation has been growing steadily around the world, with clear benefits and advantages being underlined by institutions, we also noted the persistent reporting of perceived risks on the part of a sufficient number of institutions each time.

These findings, along with in ‘on the ground’ commentaries, academic papers and practitioners’ reports provided sufficient reasons for the IAU to open a dialogue on these issues. Just noting the perceived risks or negative impacts is not enough. The afterword of the 3rd Global Survey explained or set the stage for this reflection.

UWN: Could you summarise the process in which the IAU is engaged?

Egron-Polak: In April 2011, at the 4th global meeting of associations of universities, which the IAU organised in Delhi, we focused on internationalisation. We posed a number of questions on developments in internationalisation, how institutions in various regions were able to engage in the process and the impact it was having.

The IAU agreed to coordinate a ‘re-thinking’ process in which an ad hoc group of almost 30 different experts including Jane Knight, Hans de Wit, Madeleine Green, Francisco Marmolejo, Goolam Mohamedbhai, Dennis Murray, John Hudzik and many others (see the full list here), agreed to take part.

Members of this group have been raising these issues at a variety of events and sharing comments and views gathered so that the discussion is as broad-based as possible.

At the same time the IAU, with input from the ad hoc group, drafted a text with the working title: Affirming Academic Values in Internationalisation of Higher Education: A call for action. This is now with the IAU board and will, I hope, be ready within weeks for wider circulation, so that the next stage – concrete ways to mobilise actions – can be developed as well.

UWN: What part did the Going Global 2012 sessions this week play in this process?

Egron-Polak: It was a very timely opportunity to get a wider perspective on the reflections under way and to raise consciousness that despite the overwhelmingly positive and necessary aspects of greater higher education internationalisation, there can also be a downside to the process.

The IAU agreed to play such a prominent role (and devote so much staff time and energy) to the various sessions at Going Global 2012 for that reason. The viewpoints heard in this large event will not only help to fine-tune the call but also serve to confirm that such a critical analysis of what many of us are passionately promoting is well-worthwhile in order to pursue internationalisation in ways that continue to bring benefits and, most importantly, to bring those benefits to all – not just a select few.

UWN: The benefits of internationalisation are fairly easy to define. But during the Going Global 2012 session the principal negative ones identified seemed to be limited to the brain drain and dilution of local cultures. Are there other negatives that should be identified?

Egron-Polak: In addition to the two you highlight, another that comes through in the IAU survey and is often mentioned topping the list is the commercialisation of higher education. Treating education as an export and trade commodity has come about through internationalisation and, though commercialisation has other root causes, the growth in the scope of this trade has gone hand in hand with the growth of internationalisation.

A related aspect that is also seen as a negative consequence of internationalisation is the growth in poor quality providers of higher education, which have increased in numbers, particularly in parts of the world where quality assurance and accreditation processes are still weak or where they do not exist.

UWN: The concept of responsible globalisation that emerged from the Going Global 2012 discussions seems central to any set of principles surrounding internationalisation, with the possibility of an agreed standard against which institutions can be measured. Who will monitor institutions and define responsibility?

Egron-Polak: I agree that fulfilling our global responsibilities is emerging as one of the central principles for internationalisation of higher education. I also believe that it is one that could easily serve to rally many institutional leaders, policy makers and other stakeholders, at least rhetorically.

We are coming close to defining what we mean by this concept of global responsibility and in some ways, the call we are drafting could be considered as a normative international standard-setting process. It has been and will continue to be a collective and highly consultative effort that will require much more dissemination before we get to the next phase of finding measures and monitoring processes.

Perhaps, even more importantly than monitoring and measuring, we need to find ways to demonstrate how institutions are already meeting these responsibilities and help those that wish to do so and need guidance.

When, earlier, I referred to the next stage of moving the call forward, this is what the IAU has in mind, finding concrete ways to be of service to the institutions as they adhere to the principles and look for ways to put them into action. Monitoring can come later. It is more important first to raise awareness of the need to critically assess policies and actions against this notion of global responsibility along with other principles and values that are an integral and shared part of the higher education endeavour.

UWN: It was stated that internationalisation must bring benefits to all global regions, and to all types of institution. Is this a credible aspiration?

Egron-Polak: I believe it is, especially if the regions and institutions engage in the internationalisation process. If we do not aim high, we get nowhere. It is also a fair aspiration especially if we flip the coin to its other side and affirm that the risks or negative consequences of internationalisation must be mitigated in all regions and institutions as well.

UWN: The process of globalisation/internationalisation in higher education has been largely driven by the US, the UK, some European countries and Australia. Are countries that have up until now been the subordinate partners (i.e. those in the south and east) beginning to play a more active role? If so, how do you think the 'west/north' will react? Will the countries that are used to being in the driving seat accept a more equal role?

Egron-Polak: Internationalisation and international relations in higher education are evolving very rapidly and yes, new countries have begun to play a significant role – not only the most visible – such as China, Brazil, India and South Africa, but other countries as well such as Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, and in different ways the Gulf States.

Most of the time, the evolution of these relations and the role new participants play in internationalisation is tracked on the basis of mobility statistics – are they sending more significant numbers of students abroad? Are they acting as more important host countries? Yes, changes are taking place. What is more important and interesting is the extent to which these new countries will shape or reshape the nature of internationalisation and introduce new approaches. Are they innovating in the area of curriculum? Do they view the notion of global responsibility in ways that are different? Are we learning new approaches from them?

Too often, it seems, the advent of new countries as active participants in internationalisation is seen as added competition for prestige, for students, for resources rather than a chance to collaborate in different ways. At the same time, we do see a number of alliances, networks and consortia being created and which integrate, as equal partners, a few of the best institutions from these ‘newcomers’ on the internationalisation scene. Such groupings tend to be small and highly selective, thus leaving the vast majority of the institutions and many countries on the outside. But no such alliance can today exist without institutional members from China, Singapore, South Africa or Brazil.

Finally, the re-thinking internationalisation process is, at least in part, a result of this changing reality in which the voices of the new partners in internationalisation can and want to be integrated. The IAU members in developing nations are as keen to benefit from internationalisation as the new economic powers mentioned above but their interests and needs are different.

UWN: As well as international organisations, universities must operate within their national political systems and systems of law and regulation. What happens when complying with national requirements conflicts with obligations to global responsibility?

Egron-Polak: Without a concrete example of what you have in mind in such a case, I can only respond in the abstract. However, within the framework of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, universities can, while still respecting the rule of the law, be outspoken about global issues and how to address them, they can advocate for policies that are aligned with their global responsibilities, they can be critically constructive or constructively critical in pointing out unfair or unethical practices in all spheres – economic, environmental, cultural and even educational. Finally, through research they can seek solutions and disseminate their results, even if unpopular, while always working within the rule of the law

UWN: Universities are increasingly required to meet the economic demands of the nation states that largely fund them. Can they be truly internationalist while at the same time supporting competition between nations?

Egron-Polak: Universities contribute to each nation’s economic development (among many other things) by graduating well prepared students (this means graduates with competences to live and work in an internationalised world); through research (which is almost always international); through innovation, which also derives a lot from international collaboration. So universities must be internationalised in order to fulfil this role. Of course, this allows their nations to be more competitive in the world market place but I see no contradiction there at all.

Matters become more complex when higher education comes to be treated as an industrial/service sector and it is its competitiveness (and what does this mean?) that is at stake. There the balancing act between collaboration and competition becomes much more delicate and the values of quality and scientific integrity among others that underpin higher education and principles, such as global responsibility need to become the barometer for appropriate and inappropriate actions.

UWN: In the spirit of internationalism, does the IAU see a place for portable student loans so that students may more freely study at universities in other countries?

Egron-Polak: Absolutely! There are several countries where this is already possible. This policy may be difficult to implement if the nature of the loan system makes it more complex. However, in principle, I see no reason to restrict mobility for those students who have to borrow to study; they are already disadvantaged economically, why deprive them of such opportunities?

UWN: What are the next steps in the process the IAU has begun?

Egron-Polak: As I mentioned above, final approval by the leadership of the IAU of the call is the first next step. It will be given wide dissemination and most likely institutions will be invited to adhere to its principles. At the same time the ad hoc expert group will, I hope, continue working with us to identify and begin the next steps towards implementation. We have some ideas but it is too early to share them.

As we prepare for the 14th General Conference of the association in Puerto Rico, rethinking internationalisation will be on the agenda in a series of sessions within the overall theme "Higher Education and the Global Agenda: Alternative paths to the future". The call will be given visibility; I hope that the institutions will consider adhering to it and actions for moving forward will be determined.
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