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Internationalisation - A student-centred approach is key

Internationalisation of higher education has gained public attention as one result of the increased cross-border activity of universities across the world. This activity includes, mostly, what Jane Knight defines as 'internationalisation abroad', which takes the form of the movement of programmes, people and institutions across national borders.

Internationalisation activities also take the form of efforts to enhance the international dimension of home provision and these activities are summarised as 'internationalisation at home'.

Various views have been expressed about the purpose and motive behind the internationalisation of higher education.

On one side of the debate are those who claim that internationalisation is nothing more than a way for traditional exporting countries of higher education, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, to expand their market reach and promote the globalisation of their higher education agenda.

On the other side of the debate are those who see internationalisation as a way to contribute to the capacity-building of developing countries in their efforts to meet the rapidly expanding demand for higher education and a way to promote multicultural understanding and respect.

An irreversible trend

Irrespective of this debate, internationalisation of higher education is an irreversible trend that will continue to expand in the coming years.

The reasons for this are: 1) the increased pressures for alternative sources of income for universities in traditional exporting countries of higher education where the adoption of neo-liberal policies has meant lower direct public funding for universities; 2) the growing demand for higher education that is unlikely to be met by the domestic higher education systems in most developing countries.

So far, internationalisation activities have been dominated by a heavy focus on the replication of home programmes in offshore locations, as part of internationalisation abroad, and the adoption of English as the medium of instruction, as part of internationalisation at home.

One clear challenge for internationalisation is that it has to be transformed in order to be able to meet the challenges ahead, as has been outlined by recent and earlier articles.

Primarily, internationalisation should regain its neutral meaning, moving from that of a force for globalisation that implies a heavy commercial focus to a two-way process of cross-cultural learning. Many distinguished scholars have contributed extensively to the debate and almost all possible directions have been discussed.

Demand side

Nevertheless, so far, too much of the emphasis has been placed on the supply side, namely higher education providers, regulatory bodies, governments and international associations.

Despite this being an essential component of the transformation of internationalisation, it does not account for the complete picture needed in order to consider the required strategic shift.

The demand side, which includes primarily students and then, in a more indirect way, their families and prospective employers, is by and large left outside the discussion of repositioning the internationalisation of higher education.

This is absurd, when simultaneously at national and institutional levels there appears to be a heavy focus on student experience, value for money and employability.

Instead of the current supply-side focus, the transformation of internationalisation strategy in higher education should start by refocusing on students and their longer-term benefits.

Here the suggestion is to refocus internationalisation strategy by developing and pursuing activities that will aim to fulfil any, if not all, of three student-centred objectives: 1) increasing employability; 2) enhancing value for money; and 3) multicultural exposure and understanding.

It is the achievement of these objectives that will affect demand for higher education and, consequently, will drive supply-side objectives.

A double-dip internationalisation strategy can aid the fulfilment of the above objectives.

Curriculum change

So far, internationalisation abroad has taken the form of transnational higher education for the delivery of home programmes in offshore locations. This is conducted primarily via partner-supported delivery, and to a lesser extent via international branch campuses.

In most of these provisions, delivery is dominated by the replication of the home curriculum, with minimum changes, under the fear of breaching quality assurance policies in the home country of the awarding institution. This results in nothing more than an offshore replica delivery of a home programme, which does little to contribute towards internationalisation.

It is necessary to consider carefully the bespoke development of the home programme in order to address offshore cultural values and employment market needs.

One example could be to allow the programme to include a foreign language component that would be closely aligned to the local culture and-or heavily valued in the local employment market. This would allow addressing of the three student-related objectives of internationalisation while at the same time contributing towards the internationalisation of the curriculum, which can then be taken back home.

Overall, as part of a double-dip strategy, internationalisation should take account of the wider needs or developments of the domestic-regional employment market.

Clearly, in this area the current form of internationalisation has failed to operate proactively, leading to low employability of offshore graduates and subsequent problematic student perceptions about value for money.

Here, exporting institutions should engage directly with offshore employers and conduct extensive screening of the medium- to long-term demand of local and regional businesses. This will inform the curriculum to be offered in these locations, increasing the employability prospects of future graduates.

At the same time, it will lower the velocity of offshore graduates who are currently forced to emigrate, seeking recognition of their knowledge in the home country of the awarding institution. This will smooth the brain-drain effects of internationalisation activities and contribute towards the longer-term prosperity of local economies.

As part of a double-dip internationalisation strategy, exporting institutions should also concentrate on understanding factors relating to offshore students, such as previous educational experience and cultural values, as a means to increase educational outcomes that are closely related to educational quality and student experience.

The latter affects student perceptions about the standard of the entire educational process. Numerous studies have shown that such factors impact on the effectiveness of the learning approach and consequently educational outcomes - for example, retention and achievement.

At the same time, the extent to which students value their experience positively is influenced by their level of success in the educational process. Thus, the more informed the design of the learning approach is about these factors, the more likely it is to meet demand-side objectives in internationalisation abroad activities.

Power struggles

Another way to develop a more meaningful internationalisation strategy for the future is to give voice to students and academics involved in the offshore operations of traditional Western-exporting countries.

As discussed by Hans De Wit and Elspeth Jones in University World News, internationalisation of higher education, as it exists today, conveys an inequality of power between West and East, or North and South.

Students and academics in offshore locations often feel left out of the decision-making process and consider themselves as being of inferior status compared to those who study and teach at the home campus of the awarding institution.

Higher education institutions pursuing international activities offshore should think carefully about mechanisms that will allow the equal representation of offshore students in the main institutional decision-making process.

One example could be to consider including offshore students in the home country's national student union elections, as well as student representation at institutional level in the awarding institution. This will contribute to strengthening the identity of offshore students as being part of the awarding institution while at the same time adding value to internationalisation at home activities.

Contrary to common belief, the future of internationalisation of higher education - as of higher education in general - has the student at the centre and is based on personalised learning, which implies a high degree of contextualisation of both the teaching approach and the curriculum.

Now is the best time to shift internationalisation strategies towards this objective by restoring two-way communication and adopting a double-dip approach.

Technological advancements, accumulated experience and expertise and the excellent network of internationalised institutions allow us to be optimistic that this will be acknowledged and pursued by policy-makers in time.

* Dr Vangelis Tsiligiris is the College Principal of the College of Crete and a researcher in cross border higher education. He curates the topic Cross Border Higher Education and leads the Linkedin group Transnational Higher Education. For more than 10 years he has been engaged in setting-up and leading transnational partnerships involving UK and other European universities. Email: tsiligiris@hotmail.com.
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