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2013: Internationalisation more than a numbers game

The major internationalisation themes of 2012 will continue into 2013, but many would like to see a greater emphasis on the content and quality of the international experience rather than just numbers.

The debate on international higher education in 2012 was dominated by MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – and it is likely that MOOCs will continue to be the fashion of the year in 2013, in the same way that international university rankings have been over the past five years, and transnational or cross-border higher education were over the five years before.

These three key developments in international higher education have drawn the full gamut of opinions, ranging from complete opposition to those who consider them a major revolution.

It is undeniable that MOOCs, like transnational education and rankings, have become an important dimension of international higher education. Gradually, research findings on the development of cross-border higher education and rankings have become available and have given us a greater insight into the challenges and opportunities they represent.

It is still too early to say anything substantive on MOOCs, other than that they will have an impact. Research will provide more of a basis for a critical analysis of the risks and strengths they represent for higher education and global access issues.

2012 was also the year of another increase in international student mobility, in particular from China, but also from other emerging economies and through programmes like ‘Science without Borders’ in Brazil.

New research, among others by World Education Services (WES) and written about at length in University World News by Rahul Choudaha, its research director, has provided new insights into markets and types of international students.

In 2013, this increase will continue, as will the dominance of China as a provider. Predictions beyond 2013 are difficult to make, as many factors, including the economic crisis, will have an impact. It would be a major mistake, though, for North America, Europe and Australia to assume that this massive growth will be sustainable, as Daniel Guhr warned in University World News in November in an article on the situation in the US.

In 2012, the 25th anniversary of the European flagship programme Erasmus took place amid fears that it might become a victim of its own success due to increased numbers and reduced funding.

In 1987, 3,244 students spent a part of their Erasmus study in another European Union member state. Three million students have followed their example in the past 25 years and the number of countries taking part has grown from 11 to 33, including non-EU members such as Croatia, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway, Turkey and Switzerland. The programme budget for the period 2007-13 is €3.1 billion.

While many students have benefited from increased mobilisation, the real impact of the programme has been on the internationalisation and reform of higher education.

Erasmus has paved the way for the reform of European higher education under the Bologna Process, has been a pilot for its study point scheme ECTS, and was an initiator for opening up countries in Central and Eastern Europe towards EU membership, as it is for current aspiring candidate countries.

It has also inspired cooperation between Europe and the rest of the world, and (unfortunately still with little success) similar initiatives in other regions. The programme has stimulated national governments and institutions of higher education alike to develop European and international strategies.

One can argue that the academic impact of the programme has been limited. But the massive movement of younger people spending time in a country other than their own may at least have prevented many Europeans from feeling the kind of national isolation that is predominant these days.

As a French architect graduate, now working in Amsterdam, told me: “The opportunity to meet and live with Dutch and other European students has made me become much more aware of the European in me.”

As I stated in a keynote address in Copenhagen, at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the programme, there is, however, an increased concern about the focus on numbers and percentages rather than the content and the quality of the international experience. In the early years of the Erasmus programme, the enthusiasm of faculty – encountering their colleagues, learning about their curricula and teaching methods – drove the success of the programme.

Erasmus has moved away from those inspiring days and has become more of a bureaucratic exercise, in which only numbers count. If the Erasmus programme could rediscover its focus on curriculum and learning outcomes it would not only enhance the quality of the Erasmus experience, it would also increase the interest of faculty and students in it, and as a result numbers would rise.

This relates to what I said at the International Education Association of South Africa conference in Cape Town (29-31 August), which was reported in University World News in September 2012. 2013 will hopefully see continued funding and greater focus on the quality of exchanges within Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world.

Another theme that finally seems to have to come to the forefront in 2012 is the need for greater internationalisation of curricula. Elspeth Jones and I addressed this in our contribution to University World News in October 2012 where we not only called for a de-Westernisation of the concept of internationalisation but also for more focus on faculty and student perspectives and a better understanding of international and intercultural learning outcomes.

In subsequent issues of University World News, Betty Leask from Australia and Abu Kamara from Canada followed up by calling for more attention on internationalisation of the curriculum and learning outcomes, which have been too much neglected in the focus on numbers of mobile students and faculty.

Perhaps the most important development in internationalisation of higher education in 2012, though, is more implicit: it was increasing research in the field. The year saw several interesting and positive developments, and I was pleased to be involved in some of them.

Firstly, the publication of the SAGE Handbook of International Higher Education, edited by Darla Deardorff, John Heyl, the late Tony Adams and me, was the first comprehensive overview in 25 chapters by key authors from all over the world of the internationalisation of higher education.

Several other books and articles appeared in 2012, and new journal plans with a focus on international students, mobility and the curriculum are emerging, complementing the Journal of Studies in International Education, which has for over 15 years been the leading peer reviewed academic journal in the field.

Secondly, there was the establishment of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, of which I have the honour and pleasure of being the founding director.

CHEI is the first research centre in the world to focus exclusively on internationalisation. It will have research projects, a doctoral programme, publications, training seminars and visiting scholarships. Similar initiatives are being discussed in Australia, South Africa, Japan and elsewhere.

In November, CHEI, in cooperation with the European Association for International Education, organised a first research seminar for (candidate) doctoral students on internationalisation, with 21 participants from eight countries and three continents. The study of internationalisation is finally becoming a key part of higher education research.

To sum up, 2013 will continue to see more of the same developments we saw in 2012 but I would wish for more focus on outcomes and less on outputs, and that we would see the research agenda for internationalisation further enhanced.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education and of the SAGE Handbook of International Higher Education. Email: j.w.m.de.wit@hva.nl
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