Improving what we offer (international) students

The four million or so international students today are unevenly distributed throughout the world both in terms of their country of origin and in terms of where they go. These international students represent less than 4% of the total number of students enrolled in higher education around the world.

As a result of this uneven distribution, which is also apparent at institutional level and within institutions, the range of international students in a classroom can vary from zero to 100%.

Despite the overall low proportion of internationally mobile students, however, there is a considerable focus on this group. One can only conclude that the motives for attracting them must be very significant.

This was especially evident from the way the higher education world reacted to the serendipitous advent of global ranking, which was thought to have a significant impact on recruiting.

The factors that play a role in the distribution of international students both in terms of sending and receiving countries include the absence of access to favoured programmes in home countries and the prestige and quality associated with studying at host country universities.

Many other factors can and do play a role, not the least of which is the desire by institutions to attract students for academic or financial gain, or indeed the desire by nations to augment their educated workforce to ensure a good position in the global race for knowledge-based economies.

The distribution of local students in most nations of the world is strongly governed by geographic factors. Thus when universities have the ambition to grow, attracting international students is often the only game in town.

It is understandable therefore that these universities will want to optimise all aspects of the international student experience so that they can either attract even larger numbers or better qualified candidates.

This is where universities have to steer very carefully to avoid putting too much emphasis on attracting and retaining international students.

Clearly, if we want to attract international students we have to ensure that they can compete on equal grounds with local students.

In effect, this means that we have to ensure that, for example, signage (in countries where the signage is not in the instructional language), language support, accommodation services etc. are arranged in such a way that international students do not experience undue difficulties in adapting to a new environment.

Our progress along these lines, as well as being viewed through international students' appreciation of our institution’s learning and living environments, is available in the form of a widely used international survey.

It is good to see, as described recently by Eva Egron-Polak, that auditing and evaluating of aspects of internationalisation are gaining attention.

Recently, the Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Organisation, NVAO, launched a special certificate of internationalisation for programmes delivered in The Netherlands or the Flemish part of Belgium. This process looks like being adopted by the European Consortium for Accreditation (ECA) to develop an ECA certificate regarding internationalisation.

What I like about this development is that it will ensure that the internationalisation mission becomes known to all stakeholders in an institution and that the effectiveness of that mission will be measured. Let me give one example.

Most university internationalisation missions describe the development of the local student in terms of their readiness to engage with the globalised world.

In carrying out this mission, institutions frequently claim that attracting international students is part of their way of providing an international environment in which the local student can make the first steps towards intercultural communication.

For this method to be effective there have to be ways to ensure that these intercultural interactions actually take place, especially within the domain of the discipline that is being studied.

It is hard to see how, given the prevalence of didactic teaching, this will work. It will require significant changes in the way we teach students, for instance, the use of cooperative learning techniques such as problem-based learning in culturally diverse groups.

Indeed, international students' feeling of self-worth can be enhanced considerably if they have a voice in the learning process and can talk about their different life experiences. This can only happen effectively if they are given a platform in the learning situation.

Should this be allowed to happen – and at my institution it has become a way of life – local and international student networks will become more diverse and will be enriched as a result. Most importantly, intercultural communication skills are developed in the educational setting by both groups of students.

This is a win-win situation. Measuring this outcome will demonstrate the effectiveness of the internationalisation mission and will provoke action where it highlights shortcomings.

What I am advocating is that we seek to improve those aspects of the university experience that benefit both local and international students. The choice made by international students to come to us was driven by expectations about the core functions of our institutions, that is, teaching, learning and research, as well as how our graduates perform in getting jobs or progressing in their academic career.

The winners in the race for more or better international students will be those who focus strongly on improving the core functions that attracted the international students in the first place. This is provided, of course, that they have levelled, notwithstanding national bureaucratic restrictions, the path for international students to join their local counterparts.

* Robert Coelen is vice-president international of Stenden University in The Netherlands.