EUROPE: Misconceptions about internationalisation

Internationalisation in European higher education has developed over the last 20 years from being of marginal interest to being a mainstream concern. But there is still a lack of clarity about what this involves, and there are many misconceptions about internationalisation.

In 2001, I described the internationalisation of European education as a positive development: it was more explicit, coordinated, interactive and proactive; more strategically focused on multilateral partnerships and on continuing professionalisation; more focused on the world outside Europe; more interested in internationalisation of the curriculum and quality assurance.

I also pointed to possible tensions in and reactions to this development, such as resistance to the supposed denationalising effect of internationalisation and the possible development of a new form of local and regional identity as well as the increasing influence of competition and market processes as driving factors in internationalisation.

These trends, both positive and negative, are still relevant 10 years later. Indeed the negative ones have become more pronounced in recent years.

First, there is a growing tendency to criticise European unification and cooperation, despite the achievements of the Bologna process and European programmes for education and research. At the same time, ironically, European values have been emphasised in contrast to those of other cultures.

Even though this development is more prevalent in different sectors of our society, especially in politics, economy and culture, the effects are also starting to become visible in education.

The recent protests in various countries against austerity policies in higher education and increases in tuition fees, although mostly a national concern, have a strong anti-Bologna (and therefore an anti-European) accent, which is also stoked by the unjust arguments put forward by some politicians that these measures are due to the Bologna process.

We also see that a tougher approach to immigration threatens to have a negative impact on the growing demand and worldwide competition for highly educated knowledge migrants and top talent.

Secondly, it is indisputable that competition and market processes have more and more influence on the manner in which internationalisation is implemented.

In the Bologna Declaration of 1999 and the Lisbon Strategy of 2000 the two dimensions of internationalisation meet: cooperation and competition. Both processes emphasise that there should be more cooperation, resulting in a European area for higher education and research: a 'Europe of knowledge'. However, there is a strong emphasis on the idea that this cooperation is required in order for Europe to compete with the United States, Japan and, increasingly, China and other emerging economies.

Although the successes under the terms of Bologna are indisputable, in particular in the field of the bachelor-masters introduction and the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), there is still a long way to go for higher education in Europe. However, the signs are not encouraging, given the current economic and financial crisis and associated political developments.

Nine misconceptions about internationalisation

Internationalisation has many motives and approaches. The developments described above have strengthened this diversity even more. Whereas before the drivers of internationalisation were mainly political and socio-cultural motives, economic reasons are now gaining ground and there is a stronger accent on content-related considerations.

Despite the fact that international concerns occupy an increasingly central role in the policy documents of higher education institutes, in national and European position papers and in the reports of organisations such as the OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank, they are still predominantly focused on specific activities. This leads to major misconceptions about what internationalisation actually means.

Below I describe nine of these misconceptions, whereby internationalisation is regarded as synonymous with a specific programmatic or organisational strategy to promote internationalisation: in other words where the means appear to have become the goal.

Internationalisation is about teaching in English

English as a medium of communication in research has been dominant for a long time. More and more articles, books and reports are being published in English and publication in English has become synonymous with worldwide academic production.

Also, over the past 20 years there has been a tendency in higher education to teach in English as an alternative to teaching in one's mother tongue. This tendency is growing in European countries such as Scandinavia, and more recently in Germany, France, Italy and Central and East European countries. In Asia we see a similar development in non-English speaking countries like South Korea.

It would appear, however, that this trend has gone too far in some respects. For instance, it can encourage those who have English as their mother tongue to further abandon the idea of learning foreign languages and lead to preferred treatment for native speakers.

But there are more unintended negative effects. Increasingly, education offered in the English language is regarded as the equivalent of internationalisation, which results in a decreasing focus on other foreign languages, insufficient focus on the quality of the English spoken by students and teachers for whom English is not their native language, and a consequent decline in the quality of education.

The following argument is too often heard in Dutch higher education: 'We have internationalised, because our education and research is carried out in English.' This makes an instrument - teaching in English as a means to improve the communication and interaction between students and teachers with different language backgrounds - into a goal.

It frequently leads to absurd situations, for instance a Dutch teacher may communicate with Dutch students in bad English just because that is the way it should be done for internationalisation's sake.

In Anglo-Saxon countries we see that there is little to no focus at all on the quality of English used by international students. Their mere presence and the fact that they are taught in the English language is seen as sufficient proof that there is internationalisation.

Add to this the decreasing writing and presentation skills of students in their own language and it becomes evident that clear choices should be made for both the promotion of language education in primary and secondary education, as well as for the promotion of language education in higher education.

We should have a more functional and selective approach towards teaching in English and learning a second foreign language and fully integrate efforts to improve the quality of English into study content.

Internationalisation is studying or staying abroad

Study or internship abroad is often regarded as the equivalent of internationalisation. The European Commission has encouraged this approach over the last 25 years, but so have national authorities, institutions and their programmes. It pertains to universities of applied sciences in particular.

This does not mean that study or internship abroad is harmful for students or that initiatives such as the European exchange programme ERASMUS should not be appreciated. Over the last decades mobility has been a significant driver of the internationalisation of education in Europe. However, this simplistic approach is not the same as internationalisation. Such mobility is merely an instrument for promoting internationalisation and not a goal in itself.

All sorts of assumptions are made about the value of mobility - that it encourages personal development, employability, diversity, intercultural communication, multilingualism, cooperation and competition. It is quite possible that one or more of these assumptions will result, but there is no guarantee that mobility will make it happen.

Therefore mobility needs to be better embedded in the internationalisation of education. It should be specifically assessed to find out whether these added values are developed in the student. And more innovative thinking is required on alternative ways of achieving these added values, for instance through virtual mobility, through a focus on all students, not only those who are mobile, and through the internationalisation of the curriculum and the learning process.

Internationalisation equals an international subject

A third misconception that continues to surface persistently is that internationalisation is synonymous with providing training with international content or connotation, for instance European studies, international business or music.

The United States has promoted internationalisation of the curriculum for a long time. In Europe, regional studies are considered part of mainstream education, building on the study of our colonial past. Here too we have seen the development of international business programmes, and European studies and similar studies, motivated by worldwide competition and market processes, as was the case in the United States. Increasingly, these kinds of studies are provided in English.

Within the institutions and schools that offer these programmes, the prevailing opinion seems to be that the programmes suggest internationalisation has been properly implemented. It is, however, too simplistic and instrumental an argument to declare regional studies synonymous with internationalisation, in the absence of clear definitions and assessment methods.

Internationalisation implies having many international students

A fourth misconception is the assumption that having many international students equals internationalisation. Although the combination of local and international students in the lecture room can make a significant contribution to internationalisation, having international students is not sufficient in itself.

Unfortunately, countless examples can be given of programmes that are oriented exclusively towards international students or where international students are added in as an isolated group. The problem of local and international students not integrating easily is widespread. There is a lot of focus, mostly in vain, on more integration outside the lecture room.

However, the main issue is getting students of different nationalities and cultures to work together in class because this will lay the foundation for the development of intercultural interaction and global citizenship. Only if there is sufficient focus on this cooperation will the presence of international students be of any significance.

A few international students in class makes internationalisation a success

The more disproportionate the numbers of national to international students, the less appealing it becomes for international students to enrol in these programmes.

Conversely, this development has a negative effect on the internationalisation of mainstream, non-English language programmes. Students with an international interest are more likely to enrol in international programmes, which means interest in mainstream education offered in the home language dwindles.

Also, in mainstream programmes the presence of a small number of international students creates tensions. Should the courses be taught in English if there are only one or two international students in the lecture room? How can the integration of home and international students be realised if there is such a difference in their numbers?

This reinforces the tendency to place international students on separate international programmes, leaving the internationalisation of mainstream programmes to lag behind. Institutions and schools should react with creative and innovative solutions, such as the development of international minors.

No need to test intercultural and international competencies

A sixth misconception assumes that students acquire intercultural and international competencies naturally if they study or do their internship abroad or take part in an international class.

This misconception is closely related to the previous misconceptions about mobility, education in English and the presence of international students. If these kind of activities and instruments are considered synonymous with internationalisation, then it appears obvious that intercultural and international competences will also be acquired.

Once again, reality is more complicated. There is no guarantee that these activities will actually lead to that result. After all, a student can completely seclude himself from sharing experiences with other students and other sections of the population in the country he visits, and therefore exclude himself from their culture.

An often-heard complaint is that students insufficiently integrate during their stay overseas. Another complaint is that lecturers do not take enough advantage of the benefits that students have to offer in terms of cultural diversity, knowledge and types of education.

The more partnerships, the more international

A seventh misconception about internationalisation is the focus on partnerships: the more partnerships, the more successful the internationalisation. In 2002 I recorded a trend towards more multilateral and strategic partnerships. Globalisation, competition and market processes have reinforced this move towards strategic partnerships.

The majority of partnerships, however, remain bilateral. For some time, universities have had a policy aimed at rationalising their existing partnerships in favour of a more limited number, alongside participation in selective networks.

Higher education is international by nature

At universities, the general opinion is that they are international by their very nature, and thus there is no need to stimulate and guide internationalisation. This ignores the fact that universities mostly originated in the 18th and 19th centuries and had a clear national orientation and function.

Internationalisation does not come about naturally in universities. There needs to be an integration process.

Internationalisation is a goal in itself

Most of the above-mentioned misconceptions involve seeing an activity or instrument as synonymous with internationalisation, when they are just tools in its realisation. The last, fairly prevalent misconception involves seeing internationalisation as a goal in itself.

Internationalisation, however, is a process by which intercultural, international and global dimensions are introduced into higher education to improve the goals, functions and delivery of higher education and to improve the quality of education and research. If internationalisation is regarded as a goal in itself then it remains ad hoc and marginal.

* Hans de Wit is professor of internationalisation of education at the University of Amsterdam and editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education.

* This article is an abridged version of a public lecture, titled "Nine misconceptions about the internationalisation of higher education", delivered last week.