GLOBAL: Internationalisation moves into a new phase

The current state of international higher education is under discussion. What are the perils and pitfalls for international education in the present and near future? Do we have to change or at least update our mindset with respect to the values and rationales for internationalisation? Is internationalisation as we know it coming to an end?

Over the past 40 years the internationalisation of higher education has taken several forms. In the 1970s and early 1980s, internationalisation in many countries primarily focused on development and aid.

In the second half of the 1980s, internationalisation took a different direction. In most of continental Europe, thanks to the development of scholarship programmes and mobility schemes, and in particular the well-known ERASMUS programme, the emphasis shifted from internationalisation as aid to the exchange of students and teachers as well as curriculum development.

In countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, the direction shifted from aid to trade. Instead of scholarships, universities were forced by their governments to charge full-cost fees to international students using the argument "why should our taxpayers have to foot the bill for the education of foreign students".

It was surprising to see that this did not result in a decrease of international students but a substantial increase, following the principle of "what you have to pay much for must be of good value". The UK is now the second-ranked and Australia the fifth-ranked destination country for international students who want to pursue a full degree abroad, behind the United States and, in Australia's case, Germany and France too.

In the 1990s, influenced among other issues by the Asian economic crisis - since a large majority of international students come from these countries - Australia and the Britain took internationalisation in a new direction, referred to as transnational education, cross-border delivery of education or offshore education.

The underlying assumption of this was "if they do not come to us, why do we not go to them?" Universities developed branch campuses and franchise operations in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and South Africa. This approach was about switching the emphasis on the movement of students to the movement of programmes and universities.

Together with the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom are now the leading nations in international higher education due to their inflow of international students and their offshore activities.

This shift in internationalisation in the 1990s, which has further evolved in the past decade, is referred to as a shift in paradigm from cooperation to competition and represents a more commercial approach to international higher education.

In continental Europe, this more commercial approach was originally looked on with rather negative eyes. Free or low tuition fees for higher education was and still is more common, and that applied until recently also to students from outside the European Union.

However, in the past few years in continental Europe too (Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands in particular) there has been a move to charge full cost fees for international students from outside of the EU, and there is increasing pressure on national tuition fees.

Also the free mobility of degree-seeking students within the EU, in particular from Germany and more recently from the UK due to the increase in tuition fees there, is being questioned.

This is an increasing problem for small countries like The Netherlands, Austria and Belgium and has become most problematic in Scotland. There is a growing pressure in these countries to either stem the unlimited inflow of students from within the EU or charge higher fees for them.

Recently, though, there has also been a reaction to the commercial focus of international education. The higher education sector has understood that too much of a commercial approach will jeopardise the quality of education, the reputation of institutions and, as a result, the future inflow of national and international students.

This has led to greater selection of international students, accreditation and quality control of offshore operations, the transfer of revenues to better facilitate, council and guide international students, and more emphasis on the internationalisation of the curriculum and on study abroad opportunities for home students.

Last but not least, we also see a shift in the geography of internationalisation. The traditional divide between North and South and East and West of the past century can no longer be taken for granted.

The increasing importance of Asia, and developments in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa have also changed the higher education landscape and, by that, its international dimension. They bring in new values, new approaches and new relationships.

In this context it is not surprising to see a call for a change in thinking about internationalisation, a move to mainstreaming it within overall higher education quality issues and a shift to a more comprehensive approach and one that is less revenue-based.

Several indications of this emerging debate have been seen recently. A polemic essay entitled "The End of Internationalisation", which Uwe Brandenburg and I wrote in a recent edition of International Higher Education, might have functioned as a wake-up call. But other initiatives developed at the same time.

One worth mentioning in particular is the initiative of the International Association of Universities (IAU) to start a discussion about the need to re-examine the concept of internationalisation.

An ad hoc expert group has been established to initiate this debate, which came out of the 4th IAU Global Meeting of Associations in Delhi, India, in April. For more information click [ style=bluelink]here[url]. It will be interesting to see what comes out of all this, but the debate is as important as its outcomes.

* Hans de Wit is professor of internationalisation of higher education at Hogeschool van Amsterdam, University of Applied Sciences, in The Netherlands.

* This article is based on a presentation Hans de Wit made last week at the session 'Perils and Pitfalls of International Education', at the European Association for International Education conference in Copenhagen on 14 September 2011.