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The world needs more international higher education

Internationalisation is the adaptive strategic response of an institution or nation to the forces of globalisation, which itself is a process of increasing interdependence and interconnectedness between countries. No country or sector or institution is immune from the process of globalisation, including higher education.

More internationalisation naturally leads to more globalisation, thus creating a virtuous cycle, which helps explain the increasing pace of change of the two phenomena. Internationalisation involves both push and pull factors and, as such, it is both a planned response and a reactive process by institutions (ie, both a cause and effect).

Internationalisation can also be viewed as the integration of globalisation into the tripartite mission – ie teaching, research, service – of the university. This response is operationalised through an institution’s formal internationalisation strategy – an institutional plan with specific goals and measurable objectives as well as the means by which to measure its progress (ie, the degree of internationalisation).

In an increasingly globalised knowledge community, it is important for institutions to create a formal strategy based on a systematic research-based analysis of the international higher education landscape.

A hyperconnected world

As a virtuous cycle, internationalisation and globalisation are flip sides of the same coin called a “hyperconnected world”. As such, internationalisation is both driving and responding to the increased demand for higher education worldwide.

The internationalisation of higher education manifests itself in many ways, such as:

  • Cross-border inter-institutional partnerships, for example, research partnerships, twinning or franchise arrangements, and overseas branches;
  • The exporting of educational services worldwide, for example, global course delivery, and study abroad;
  • Implementing a global dimension into the core activities and initiatives of the institution, for example, internationalising the curriculum and learning experiences.

At the very least, internationalisation requires that universities acquire intercultural competencies and it imposes new demands on universities at all levels, thus expanding their mission, vision and core institutional values.

However, internationalisation is not solely the geographic extension of an institution across national borders. It is also the internal transformation of an institution to make it more globalised in all respects.

For global universities, aided by advances in technology and the reduction of international trade barriers and travel restrictions, the production of learning and the delivery of knowledge through teaching, research and service are no longer restricted by the traditional barriers of space and time.

Although globalisation is commonly viewed as an economic process through increased trade and more intertwined global economic systems, it also involves socio-political processes.

Since economic systems are embedded within larger socio-political systems, it follows that socio-political systems are also impacted by globalisation and internationalisation. Thus, globalisation, internationalisation and democratisation – as a socio-political process and system – are interrelated in complex yet complementary ways.

International HE as a positive force

The playing field for most universities is now the global landscape. As such, many universities are multinational organisations wherein they have comprehensive internationalisation strategies to better address the increasingly competitive nature of international student and faculty recruitment, among other factors.

Of course, there are serious concerns – for example, the escalating price of tuition, swelling student loan debt, the growing number of low-paid contingent faculty – in some countries that must be addressed.

However, the answer to these problems will not be found by restricting access to higher education or by curbing the flow of higher education across national borders but rather by increasing the availability (supply) of high quality and meaningful higher education through innovation and diversification, in order to meet the burgeoning global demand for higher education.

For these reasons, international higher education is a worthy goal to pursue in its own right and at every level: international, national, institutional and individual. For instance, international scholar programmes such as the Fulbright Program continue to yield huge benefits by improving international relations and intercultural understanding between nations.

As one benchmark of its success in doing this, the Fulbright Program has produced perhaps more Nobel laureates than any other academic scholarship and international exchange programme in the world.

The world needs more programmes like this, not less, and concomitantly the world needs more international higher education, not less.

For instance, organisations such as the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and the International Association of Universities, among others, are aimed at improving international understanding through improving higher education development and capacity building.

These organisations include a diverse network of international educators from vastly different cultures and institutions who come together to explore new ways to develop international higher education through sharing of knowledge and collaborative research projects.

Strengthening democracies

Increasing the availability of international education should not only help nations become more economically competitive, which is important for economic growth and job creation, but it should also help strengthen democratic societies also.

In the book, Democratizing Higher Education, research shows that international higher education has been an important vehicle to not only help meet the growing global demand for higher education but also to serve as a positive force for democratising societies by providing a natural vehicle through which students, faculty, administrators and others increase their intercultural understanding and cooperation.

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Democracy states that “a sustained state of democracy requires a democratic climate and culture constantly nurtured and reinforced by education and other vehicles of culture and information”. And that “the principles of democracy must be applied to the international management of issues of global interest…”.

Within this context, the internationalisation of higher education is a positive force for strengthening democratic societies around the world because it serves as a main vehicle for lifelong learning and because it is a needed component for extending the democratic social contract to all people.

As the world moves further into the 21st century, higher education will play an increasingly important role in the world.

In the book, Democratizing Higher Education, the following question emerged from the research findings: How can higher education help prepare students to live and work in a globalised world? International higher education provides a meaningful way to help accomplish that goal.

Patrick Blessinger is the founder and executive director of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and an adjunct associate professor of education at St. John’s University in New York City, USA. He is co-editor with John P Anchan of Democratizing Higher Education: International comparative perspectives.
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