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Misconceptions of internationalisation still prevail

On 20 March 2011, I wrote my first blog, “Trends and drivers in internationalisation”, for issue 163 of University World News. Over the past six years, I have contributed 50 other blogs to University World News, 15 with co-authors (five with Philip Altbach, three with Elspeth Jones and seven with others).

This is a good moment to look both back and forward. I have selected nine blogs, which I think are a good reflection of the discourse on internationalisation over the past six years and even before. These are:

Why these nine? In my view, they reflect the key challenges that internationalisation has been facing and will continue to face in the years to come.

I selected some of them because they have contributed to putting the issue on the agenda. The blog on COIL and virtual mobility in 2013, for instance, brought the importance of collaborative online international learning to the forefront as a key innovation in internationalisation.

And the joint blog with Philip Altbach on the Syrian refugee crisis and the role of universities, in 2015, was the first on this topic in the international higher education debate. Many have since substantially elaborated on both these issues.

The nine 'misconceptions about internationalisation' in my second blog in 2011, which are recurrent in most of my following University World News blogs, have also been widely acknowledged and are still as relevant today as they were six years ago.

Misconceptions and mobility

The main misconception continues to be that internationalisation is perceived to be a goal in itself. This perception is still rather dominant in national and institutional policies. Rankings, and their interpretation of internationalisation, drive governments and universities to internationalise in the hope of improving their performance.

The same applies to the still growing pressure to teach in English or to sign memoranda of understanding. “Because we have to internationalise” is the main rationale for doing so – whereas the core functions of internationalisation are to enhance the quality of research and education and to make a meaningful contribution to society.

Internationalisation is still dominated by the mobility factor, an elitist and excluding concept, even though higher education leaders claim that their main drive is to prepare all graduates to become globally engaged.

The reality is that less than 2% of the global student population is mobile, for short-term credit and long-term degree reasons. The leitmotiv of the ‘Internationalisation at Home’ movement in Europe at the end of the last century, “What about the other 98%?”, is still very relevant.

Economic and reputation factors are more important than academic or social ones: money and rankings are still driving the internationalisation policies of governments and institutions.

This has been the case in Australia and in the United Kingdom for more than three decades, but in other countries and institutions of higher education these are also key rationales. They drive recruitment policies for international students and faculty, teaching in English and the focus on publishing in English academic journals.

Populism and the possible decline of English

What impact will the new political climate have on this obsessive focus on rankings and economic rationales? Most likely, the anti-global and anti-immigration policies of Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the United Kingdom will have a serious effect on the recruitment of international students.

The budget cuts proposed by Trump on research and financial aid will have a negative impact on the quality of US research and education. These measures and the consequences of Brexit in general might also be the start of the decline of English as the dominant language in research and education.

I would not be surprised if, in the next 30 years, the panorama of international higher education changes fundamentally. The current political climate will have an accelerating effect on what would have happened in any case, but later and more slowly: for instance, the gradual rise of higher education in Asia.

The main question, though, is not so much Asia’s increasing power, but whether this will change the nature of higher education and of its internationalisation.

It is too soon to tell, although several themes that I have addressed in my blogs over the past six years will need attention, such as online learning, languages, internationalisation of the curriculum, employability and sustainable development.

Over the past 40 years, internationalisation as a concept and strategy has evolved from a minor, fragmented and marginal theme to a major, central agenda item for governments and higher education institutions all over the world.

But, although we use labels like ‘comprehensive internationalisation’ and ‘global citizenship’ as if ‘internationalisation’ were systematic and qualitative, the reality is that it has become a very broad term, used for a great variety of (mostly economic) agendas. Whether the changing geographic landscape of higher education will also result in different agendas remains to be seen.

Some of the major misconceptions I will surely address in the coming years are likely to include:

  • Internationalisation being equal to ‘global’ and ignoring ‘local’;
  • Internationalisation being a risk for national and cultural identities;
  • Western values and concepts as the sole models for internationalisation; and finally
  • Internationalisation unfolding worldwide without any alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: dewitj@bc.edu. De Wit is co-editor of Understanding Global Higher Education, a new book which brings together articles from past editions of University World News and International Higher Education, offering an accessible and analytic perspective on the pressing concerns of contemporary higher education.
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