Internationalisation in higher education – Rhetoric versus reality

In 1998, Philip Altbach and Patti McGill Peterson wrote a critical assessment in Change with the title “Internationalise American Higher Education? Not exactly”. They observed a discrepancy between the optimistic rhetoric of internationalisation and the reality of significant constraints.

Nearly 15 years later, the third study Mapping Internationalisation on US Campuses by the American Council on Education (ACE), which studied 1,041 institutions, confirms that this tendency is still prevalent in US higher education.

And I would be inclined to add – also elsewhere.

What lessons can be learned from the mapping exercise? Would similar studies in Europe and elsewhere come to similar results? Will the divide between research universities and other institutions of higher education with respect to internationalisation increase and in what way?

The results of the study by ACE are described in a positive way.

More institutions incorporate internationalisation into their mission statements and strategic plans. There are more assessment procedures for internationalisation in place. There is more attention paid to hiring faculty with international backgrounds, experience and interests.

Attention to mobility issues remains strong. Partnerships, cross-border delivery of education and joint degrees are on the rise. And in general there is an increase in funding, in particular for study abroad and recruitment.


But the ACE report is also outspoken in its concerns.

According to the report, Altbach and McGill Peterson's observation is still valid today, in particular with regard to the issue of student learning.

It states: “Although many institutions indicated that the curriculum has been a particular focus of internationalisation efforts in recent years, overall this is not reflected in the general education requirements that apply to all students.”

And in a clear but harsh way the report concludes: “At their core, however, colleges and universities are about student learning; no matter what shape the internationalisation process takes at a given institution, student learning must remain a central core.”

It adds that this seems not to be the case in many institutions. In other words, higher education institutions should not only talk about the importance of internationalisation of the curriculum, but place it at the centre of their curriculum reforms and learning outcomes.

These findings coincide with the results from the third Global Survey by the International Association of Universities (IAU) in 2010.

Also in that survey, one can note a strong difference between what institutions say about the importance of internationalisation and its priority in practice – in particular where it concerns the curriculum – not only in the US but also in other regions.

So, this discrepancy is clearly not a purely American problem, but an issue that applies also to Europe and other parts of the world.

Much to be done

We may be positive about the increasing attention being paid to curriculum and learning outcomes instead of the quantitative focus on study abroad and recruitment of international students that is manifested in these studies. But there is still a lot to do to make the shift a reality.

Funding is not the main obstacle to internationalising the curriculum and learning outcomes.

The IAU survey indicates that faculty resistance and an inflexible curriculum are probably more important. So leadership can make a difference, but the impetus for change has to move down to the programme level – to deans, department heads, faculty and students – for change to be realised.

At a time when internationalisation has become more bureaucratic and focused on quantitative targets, this requires a substantive change of mentality and approach, as I wrote in my previous blog for University World News.

Another interesting finding of the ACE report relates to the differences in progress between doctoral universities and other higher education institutions in the US:

“Broadly speaking, the doctoral sector does better than all others on many of the internationalisation indicators in the Mapping Survey. While associate institutions have made progress in some areas, their overall levels of internationalisation are still below those of institutions in other sectors.”

The report correctly notes that approximately 40% of the student body in the US attends associate institutions, and calls for new innovative approaches to internationalisation since the classical focus on study abroad is not the most useful for students in this sector.

Nevertheless, we do not yet see many signs of innovation in that sector. Interestingly enough, I have the impression that innovative and comprehensive strategies for internationalisation seem to come more from the top, private research universities in the US, which until recently were not focusing much on internationalisation but now seem to be taking the lead.

International innovative initiatives by Yale, New York University, Cornell and Stanford are regularly in the news while smaller colleges and institutions mainly seem to feature due to scandals and problems in their international activities.

In Europe, where top research universities are publicly funded, this is not so much the case, maybe with the exception of Germany where the excellence initiatives and funds from DAAD [German Academic Exchange Service] are positive incentives for the extension and innovation of internationalisation.

In other countries, the economic crisis does not allow for much innovation and investment. It will be interesting to see if internationalisation becomes an elite enterprise of top private research universities again.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, and professor of internationalisation at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International education. Email: