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What is an International University?
Over the past few years a series of buzzwords – global citizenship, comprehensive internationalisation and world-class university – have taken over discussions about international higher education.

As I wrote in 2011 in a University World News blog Naming internationalisation will not revive it, behind many of these buzzwords there appears to be an underlying desire to broaden and deepen the notion of internationalisation, but their effect might have the opposite impact, meaning we go on with business as usual.

Books, articles and papers have been written about these buzzwords; they are referred to in global, regional and national rankings, and you find them in mission statements and policy documents all over the world. Yet the exact meaning of these terms is unclear and they are only perceptions and interpretations, not commonly acknowledged indicators or defined concepts.

‘International University’ seems to be the new fashionable term in this category. Recently, it has appeared in international rankings: for instance, the Times Higher Education, or THE, Ranking of the 100 most International Universities of the World 2015.

Moreover, U-Multirank recently published a ranking showing the international orientation of 237 universities. The latter ranking differs from the THE one in that it does not talk about ‘International University’ but about ‘International Orientation’, but it fits with the apparent trend to try to identify what an international university is.

What the two have in common is that they rank these universities and use more or less the same quantitative indicators to do so. THE uses as indicators the number of international students, the number of international staff and the number of internationally co-authored publications.

These are quite similar to the four measures used by U-Multirank: strong incoming and outgoing mobility, a high proportion of international staff and doctoral graduates, and a strong record of research publication in collaboration with academics abroad.

But is it possible to define what an ‘International University' is? And does their approach, using only a small number of quantitative indicators, make sense?


If we agree that internationalisation is a process that helps universities to increase the quality of their education, research and service to society and is not a goal in itself, how is it then possible to define an end product: the International University? When there is not a standard model for how universities internationalise, how is it possible to define what an International University aims to be?

Responding to this trend, Jane Knight, an adjunct professor in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, wrote a paper on ‘What is an International University?’ in the OECD’s The State of Higher Education 2014.

Knight starts by saying that there is much confusion as to what it actually means for a university to be international. In fact, she states, the term is not important; more important is the approach or model used.

She identifies three “generations” of International University: an internationalised university with a diversity of international partnerships, international students and staff and multiple collaborative activities; universities with satellite offices in the form of branch campuses, research centres and management or project offices; and most recently, standalone institutions co-founded or co-developed by two or more partner institutions from different countries.

I have sympathy with her argument that it is a fact that institutions and others use the term ‘International Universities’ so we had better try to analyse and categorise what they mean by it. But besides the fact that she makes no clear reference to the dimension of internationalisation at home, the categories she uses, particularly the first category, are so broad that it does not really help to define what an International University is.

It might even have – as I warned in my blog of 2011 – the opposite effect, that is, universities can easily state that they fall into one of these categories and so are international.

In my view, it would be better to say that the first category consists of universities that are internationally cooperative, the second group are universities that are internationally active and the third are those that are internationally operative. But I’m not sure how much this contributes to the discussion.

Assessing programmes over institutions

In addition to the THE and U-Multirank initiatives, the European Consortium for Accreditation, or ECA, has also developed an assessment instrument, the Certificate for Quality in Internationalisation, or CeQuInt. This certificate can be applied for by both programmes and by institutions.

At a conference in Paris at the end of February, marking the end of the European Commission-funded pilot project, the first certificates were awarded, eight of them to programmes and two to institutions.

The difference between the THE and U-Multirank assessment criteria is not only that CeQuInt explicitly focuses on quality, but that its standards are also quality-based. Quantitative indicators are only used to show relevant trends which reveal what the quality and impact is.

At institution level the CeQuInt standards are: intended internationalisation, action plans, implementation, its enhancement and its governance. For the programme level, they are: intended internationalisation, international and intercultural learning, teaching and learning, staff and students. Each standard has a small number of criteria.

At both levels it is explicitly asked that programmes and institutions demonstrate that “the internationalisation goals explicitly include measures that contribute to the overall quality of the programme”. In this way the certificate also makes clear that internationalisation is not a goal in itself, but a way to enhance the quality of what is being offered.

There is no perfect way to measure the quality of internationalisation and the contribution of internationalisation to the overall quality of education, certainly not at the institutional level.

The CeQuInt standards at the programme level provide a better opportunity than those at the institutional level to reveal the quality of the curriculum and teaching and learning as well as the role students, graduates and staff play in this.

I have been involved in both the design for CeQuInt and its inspiration, the ‘Distinguished Feature for Internationalisation’ Certificate of the Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Organisation, NVAO. And I have always been more critical of the institutional rather than the programme level because at the programme level one can better assess outcomes and impact.

My suggestion at the CeQuInt conference in Paris to consider that in future, comprehensive universities should at least pass two programme certifications before, or at the same time, they get any institutional recognition, was well received. This would better promote the focus on quality, compared to other instruments like THE and U-Multirank.

I am afraid that in future, more and more universities will refer in their mission statements and policies to the fact that they are an International University without making explicit what they mean by it. They will make use of rankings like THE and U-Multirank.

Universities should not fall into the temptation to use seemingly attractive but vague terms, but focus on the quality of what they are doing. As in the case of the other buzzwords of the day, I am afraid we cannot stop them from doing so, but at least they can look at CeQuInt as an alternative option.

Hans de Wit is Director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, or CHEI, of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands. Email: j.w.m.de.wit@hva.nl.

This is an extended version of a contribution to an upcoming special issue of International Higher Education, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, celebrating its 20th anniversary, June 2015.


Again it falls to Hans de Wit to debunk lazy attributions and assertions in #internationalisation.

Darren McDermott on the University World News Facebook page
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