Universities must be clear and honest about internationalisation

Conversations at the recent “Going Global 2012” meeting made it abundantly clear that there are as many drivers of internationalisation as there are forms it takes. Globalisation is reshaping the landscape, with technology facilitating new approaches to internationalisation and intensifying existing ones; global competition is altering the rules of the game.

Participants described a great variety of internationalisation activities, ranging from the more ‘traditional’ partnerships for teaching and research to the business of recruiting and retaining international students, or twinning and franchising programmes.

Although gatherings of this sort tend not to question the basic premises or assumptions underlying the initiatives that are being proudly presented by panellists and exhibitors, at this event the International Association of Universities (IAU) provided an opportunity for more critical reflection.

In a series of very well attended sessions titled “Rethinking Internationalisation: Who benefits and what risks?”, the IAU in partnership with the “Going Global” host the British Council, engaged attendees in a dialogue about the changing face(s) of internationalisation and the need to re-assert core academic values.

The sessions began with a plenary panel, and then broke into working groups around six broad themes – clarity of concept, drivers of internationalisation, the place of student mobility, global responsibility, internationalisation as a catalyst for reform, and the internationalised university – whose chairs later reported on their discussions in a closing plenary.

These sessions grew out of a current IAU initiative to prompt institutions around the world to engage in serious reflection about the drivers, rationales and means used for their internationalisation efforts, and the likely impact on institutions themselves and on other universities, nations and the shape of the global higher education landscape.

This initiative will first result in a framing document to be released later this spring.

Many drivers at work

Higher education institutions engage in internationalisation for a variety of reasons, and generally several different drivers are at work simultaneously. The following brief list, in no particular order, reveals a wide range of drivers:
  • • To prepare students for ‘global citizenship’ (which can be defined in many ways).
  • • To prepare students for the global workforce.
  • • To enhance the quality of teaching and research.
  • • To strengthen institutional capacity.
  • • To enhance prestige and visibility.
  • • To generate revenue.
  • • To contribute to local or regional economic development.
  • • To contribute to knowledge production on global issues.
  • • To solve global problems.
  • • To increase international understanding and promote peace.
The motivations for pursuing internationalisation differ by region, country and institution.

It comes as no surprise that, according to IAU research, enhancing institutional capacity in research figures prominently among the drivers in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

In some countries and regions, government policies play a prominent role in shaping internationalisation; for example, by providing incentives for institutions to recruit international students (or imposing barriers to such recruitment) or by policies that invite in foreign providers.

At the institutional level, internationalisation drivers are shaped by a number of factors, including national government policies, institutional needs and priorities, and stakeholders’ needs and interests.

Some drivers are more important or more explicit than others. For example, it is often difficult to discern on the basis of institutional statements the extent to which the push for international students is actually driven by the espoused value of internationalising the campus or by the need for revenue.

Similarly, it is not necessarily clear either to institutional insiders or outsiders the extent to which a programme or branch campus abroad is fuelled by the desire to build capacity in the host country or to establish a global footprint for the mother campus.

Drivers raise questions about purpose and values

This mixture of drivers can raise issues that reflect a deeper set of questions about institutional purpose and values.

Universities around the world live in a competitive environment, where resources and prestige drive institutional strategies and behaviours. That is a reality that cannot be denied or avoided. This complex higher education environment requires a higher level of introspection and honesty both within institutions and among partners.

When there is no consensus within an institution about the mix and hierarchy of internationalisation goals, implementation will be rocky and success hard to define. Similarly, when international partners are not clear with each other, the potential for understanding and mutual benefit is greatly diminished.

One practical way for institutions to achieve greater clarity and transparency about their goals is to look at their definitions and metrics of success. Such metrics indicate what is valued; they align with the real goals.

If the number of international students is the most important measure of success, without regard to the geographic or disciplinary distribution, that suggests that the underlying goal is revenue, not the frequently professed goal of impact on campus internationalisation.

Similarly, if an institution aims to develop global citizens but does not have any metrics to ascertain the extent to which this being achieved, it calls into question how important that goal really is.

Admittedly, it is easier to measure the level of activity than its impact. But unless institutions make the effort to be clear about the drivers and related expected impacts of internationalisation, they will either be deluded or uninformed about their success.

* Madeleine F Green is a consultant and senior fellow at the International Association of Universities and at NAFSA: The Association of International Educators.