18 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Internationalisation should start at school

Spending on internationalised education is growing annually. There have been increases in all types of internationally mobile students. And even if students are not able to be mobile, they can increasingly take up opportunities to study in transnationally delivered education, from single programmes or parts thereof to full-blown campuses set up by universities from other countries.

At the same time an interest in ‘internationalisation at home’ through internationalisation of the curriculum, is gaining ground. This has brought the staff development needed for creating and delivering internationalised curricula under the spotlight. Moreover, in some countries, organisations are calling for internationalisation of primary and secondary education.

All in all, there is a substantial effort being made to ensure that the graduates of tomorrow (or today) are ready to meet the challenges posed by an increasingly globalised world, where goods, ideas and people cross borders, despite rhetoric and actions that seek to stem this flow.

In essence, this readiness is often defined as the ability to interact effectively with people from other cultural backgrounds, an awareness of global connectedness and a shared responsibility for the sustainability of life on Earth. There is a plethora of terms used to describe this preparation, including intercultural competence, intercultural readiness, global citizenship and global responsibility.

21st century skills

There has also been a growing recognition of the importance of so-called ‘21st century skills’ – soft or transversal skills. These may or may not include broad knowledge and-or competencies.

In fact, a widely accepted and promulgated definition of 21st century skills is that they are said to be skills, competencies and learning dispositions that have been identified as vital for success in the 21st century. These skills basically differ from traditional academic skills in that they are not primarily concerned with content knowledge.

At a deeper level, the learning outcomes of an internationalised education are given meaning within the confines of a particular discipline and its interdisciplinary connections. The embedding of these learning outcomes is the terrain of discipline specialists in collaboration with education experts.

I was privy to such an interaction with a team of specialists in the field of international business and management studies or IBMS. Their assignment was to revise an existing professional competency profile as part of a six-year cycle. The outcome of their deliberations forms the basis for the IBMS programmes throughout the Netherlands.

The team decided to reformulate the profile in terms of learning outcomes instead of the competencies that have been used in the past. The learning outcomes were formulated by disciplinary teams throughout the Netherlands. The team used the KSAVE – Knowledge, Skills, Attitudes, Values and Ethics – model and integrated it with disciplinary knowledge.

To test the newly formulated learning outcomes, the team collected early career challenges that IBMS graduates faced in industry and projected the learning outcomes onto each problem.

Embedded internationalisation

I want to make two observations on this process. The first is that the internationalisation-related learning outcomes became seamlessly embedded in the entire programme and were not bolted on as an ‘extra’. This is in stark contrast to the experience of many international education experts who have felt for a long time that the integration of internationalisation was seen as yet another addition to an already overflowing curriculum.

The second observation is the realisation that 21st century skills, albeit in the context of IBMS, are required for virtually every early career challenge that industry provides. Put even more strongly, 21st century skills are the core and disciplinary knowledge is the carrier – a near reversal of previous ways of teaching.

Of course, this new alignment is very much in keeping with what many industry leaders have been telling us for the past decade or so – that transversal skills were seen as at least as important as, if not more so, than disciplinary knowledge.

Given that 21st century skills learning outcomes are seen as necessary for graduates to be successful and given the significant and increasing extent of globalisation, it would follow that learning outcomes associated with internationalisation are just as necessary for success.

It therefore makes sense to group them both together. Indeed, in the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning, social and cross-cultural skills, flexibility and adaptability and global awareness are already embedded under 21st century themes and life and career skills.

I can’t help thinking that at the tertiary level, we are conducting a repair mission when pre-tertiary education seems a more receptive environment for developing a sound KSAVE basis for 21st century skills and internationalisation of learning outcomes.

The P21 Framework has pre-tertiary education in its sights and has recently released a 21st Century Skills Early Learning Framework. Should the aims of this framework – to equip pre-tertiary students with the relevant 21st century knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and ethics – be realised, higher education may set its sights higher, provided, of course, it recognises the changed nature of first-year entrants and builds on their enhanced level of 21st century skills.

Calls for dialogue

I realise there is a long way to go in many countries, given the state of pre-tertiary education as described in a recent World Bank report. Nevertheless, if we do not start a dialogue between the various education sectors on these important topics, we will lose valuable time that we do not have and fail to produce graduates who are able to overcome the problems that beset this planet.

Even in countries with well-developed education systems, such as my own, we have a long way to go.

The two workshops I have hosted on the topic of internationalisation for the various education sectors (primary, secondary, tertiary) showed that each sector had its own agenda, developed in the absence of any dialogue with other sectors. The ideal of learning that crosses sectoral boundaries and extends from primary to tertiary education seems a long way off.

Robert Coelen is professor of internationalisation of higher education at Stenden University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands.
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