GLOBAL: Naming internationalisation will not revive it

A recent phenomenon in the debate on the future of the internationalisation of higher education is the inclination to put new broad-based labels on it: mainstreaming, comprehensive, holistic, integrated and deep internationalisation are some of the ones we see used in recent writings and presentations.

The most common current label appears to be 'comprehensive internationalisation', thanks mainly to the paper with that title which past president of the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), John Hudzik, wrote this year with the subtitle 'From concept to action'.

In Europe the term 'mainstream(ing) internationalisation' is becoming more common, although this is perceived less as a concept than 'comprehensive internationalisation'. It is used to describe a process emphasising the need to position internationalisation within the core of higher education instead of keeping it as a marginal issue.

Why do we see this emergence of new labels? What do they mean and how are they used? And will they advance the debate on the future of internationalisation started by Uwe Brandenburg and me in our recent International Higher Education essay with the provocative title "The End of Internationalisation"?

These questions occurred to me after chairing a debate on "What do we mean by 'deep internationalisation'?" at the Australia International Education Conference in Adelaide on 13 October 2011.

Even after the session I was not clear what our Australian colleagues meant by the term 'deep internationalisation' and it also seemed to me that they themselves were not very clear or convinced about it. From what I can ascertain, 'deep' internationalisation seems to lie somewhere between 'comprehensive' and 'mainstream'.

It is a bit clearer what John Hudzik means by 'comprehensive internationalisation'. His definition - although I read it more as a statement and action plan - reads as follows: "A commitment through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research and service mission of higher education". He continues, adding values, ethos and internal and external stakeholders.

I have little against this statement or the term itself, but still I wonder why there is a need for this new label.

If one compares Hudzik's definition of 'comprehensive internationalisation' with the generally accepted definition by Jane Knight on internationalisation - "the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education", which dates back to the early 1990s - one cannot see much difference.

And that applies to all the other labels too. There is no other conclusion but that these labels are tautologies, using different words to say the same thing even if the repetition does not actually make the meaning any clearer.

Why then does there appear to be a need for new labels?

As Uwe Brandenburg and I pointed out in our essay about the end of internationalisation, there appears to be a trend to move from substance to form and to devalue the notion of internationalisation.

If one looks at recently published articles and themes at international education conferences, one gets the impression that internationalisation is suffering from an identity or mid-life crisis, as Jane Knight wonders in the August edition of the OECD's IMHE Info.

The International Association of Universities has even established an ad hoc international expert group to rethink internationalisation. The group will address three questions: Is the concept and the definition of internationalisation keeping up with developments in higher education? Is there a shared understanding of the concept? Has internationalisation lost sight of its central purposes?

I participate in this group, as it is my strong conviction that we must constantly update and, if necessary, refresh our concepts and ideas. Uwe Brandenburg and I have already initiated a debate on the third of these questions in our essay.

Jane Knight in her identity crisis article makes a statement about the first question that I sympathise with. She asks: "Can we focus on values and not only on definitions?"

Although I understand the motivations behind the inclination to develop new definitions and labels, and although I sympathise with the underlying urge to broaden and deepen the notion of internationalisation, I do not think they are much of a help. And I fear they might have the opposite effect. In the discussions I have taken part in recently, I observe the inclination to embrace these new labels, but continue with business as usual.

If we want to bring internationalisation a step closer we have to look at its achievements; its misconceptions; the changing global landscape and the related debate about internationalisation as a 'Western concept' or as a repetition of the old system by new players; internationalisation for a small elite or for all; the similarities and differences between intercultural and international and global cooperation, and other fundamental developments and values.

If internationalisation is to be revived it will not be the result of new labels, but of a debate and action around these key questions.

In that respect I have been inspired by the critical remarks on ethos and values by Simon Marginson and Fazal Rizvi of Melbourne University, by increased attention to the theme of 'internationalisation of the curriculum', by the establishment of an International Education Researchers Network, and by the increased participation from Asia at the AIEC Conference in Adelaide.

Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, director of global planning and strategy at the University of Malaysia, in explaining the Malaysian internationalisation strategy - international research, international students and international branding and reputation - said with conviction:

"The end of internationalisation? We are just at the beginning!"

* Hans de Wit is professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Centre for Applied Research in Economics and Management (CAREM) in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Email: