Bring internationalisation back into academia – Hans De Wit

The internationalisation of higher education must be taken out of international offices and “brought back to where it belongs – in academia”, according to Hans de Wit. It is a mistake to see research and internationalisation as administrative issues residing in a research or an international office.

“No, research is not part of administration. Internationalisation is not part of administration. Research and internationalisation and education and social engagement are part of the leadership of the institution and are part of the academics within the institution.”

Academics drive internationalisation, research and education, said De Wit in a keynote speech on “Trends in Research on the Internationalisation of Higher Education” at the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) conference held in Cape Town from 29-31 August.

De Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, a professor at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education. He also blogs for University World News.

While several speakers talked about the internationalisation of research, De Wit’s focus was on research into internationalisation, which has been defined as integrating an international dimension into universities’ core missions of education, research and social engagement.

At the conference, De Wit added, “people have been talking about transcultural knowledge, diversity of ideas, global engagement, and deeper understanding of international diversity. These are elements that are not only part of education but also are part of research. The two are connected – research and education – and also by the international dimension.

“Internationalisation is, like research, one of the driving innovative elements in higher education. And because of that there is also a need for a research agenda to help the higher education community in shaping this innovation. We have to understand better why we are internationalising, and research has to help that,” said De Wit.

Lack of a strong research tradition

But there is not a strong research tradition in international education. The internationalisation of higher education only really started in the 1990s, and study of the area has been marginalised and beset with confusion over terms.

Research into internationalisation is interdisciplinary. “It is not a discipline itself but grows from education, psychology and anthropology, sociology and political science and economics and languages etc. It is a very broad field of research,” said De Wit.

“Despite increasingly theoretically and methodologically ambitious studies, there is no dominant disciplinary conceptual or methodological home of research into higher education internationalisation. So it doesn’t belong anywhere and is still rather marginalised.”

Although by definition internationalisation addresses international issues, there is still little comparative research, and research remains fragmented into case studies of programmes, institutions or countries.

There are also some concerns. “There is a lack of clear data on what we are talking about, so we don’t have really concrete facts. And the fact that we have a lack of data is also because we lack clear definitions of different aspects of what internationalisation is,” De Wit said.

“Another concern is that the pool of experienced researchers is still rather small. There is a dominance of Anglo-Saxon researchers from Australia, the UK, the US and Canada and a little bit of Germany, The Netherlands and Scandinavia. They are dominating the discourse.

“And there appears to be a contradiction between the increasing importance of the internationalisation of higher education and the lack of funding to research it.” Perhaps, suggested De Wit, because there is no clear disciplinary home, funding agencies are not interested.

Positive developments

However, on the positive side there have been numerous developments that have stimulated research into the internationalisation of higher education, De Wit continued.

A clear example was the 15-year-old Journal of Studies in International Education, which he co-edits and which “has become accepted by both the academic world and professionals in international education as the most respected, globally peer-reviewed academic journal in the field”.

Its impact factor increased in a year from 0.739 to 1.000 in 2011. The journal has been receiving an increasing number of manuscripts, with more than 200 submitted this year. “The quality of manuscripts has improved substantially, which has created quite a challenge for us as editors because we only have an acceptance rate of something like 20%."

While in the past submissions were primarily from America and to a lesser extent from Europe, there are now more manuscripts from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America and the quality of those articles has improved.

Also, a growing number of articles on internationalisation are appearing in more general higher education journals, there are more books being published and the quality of discourse at internationalisation conferences and seminars is improving.

“It is interesting to see the emergence of networks of researchers in international education,” De Wit continued, in Europe, Australia, the US and elsewhere. “Research is getting more attention and more people are interested in research networking and working together.”

There are also more research centres focusing explicitly on the internationalisation of higher education, general higher education centres paying more attention to it and many more PhD students focusing on internationalisation. “That was not the case 10 years ago.

“So we are seeing increasing attention to research on internationalisation and in particular among the younger generation. We see more students coming from economics and political science etc wanting to do a PhD on the internationalisation of higher education.”

The research agenda

What will the research agenda be in the coming decades? And what are the opportunities?

Although there is still interest in ‘traditional’ research topics like comparing numbers of international students and study-abroad programmes, an issue that is seeing increasing attention is international and intercultural competencies and bridges between them.

There is attention being paid to internationalisation of the curriculum, and the teaching and learning process – and faculty engagement in this – and what internationalisation of the curriculum means for different programmes, for instance nursing or management or sport.

“We see more research into cross-border and transnational education, the development of branch campuses and franchise operations, and joint and double degree programmes,” said De Wit. There is also growing interest in inputs and outcomes, and how to measure quality.

There is a lot more comparative research being undertaken, and research into non-traditional markets in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East and the different roles and models and opportunities they present.

Also, media such as University World News are adding to the discourse. “One of the reasons why the discourse is opening up is because we now know what’s happening in the rest of the world.” There are also more databases on research.

“There is still strong focus on practitioners. That’s why it is important that the younger generation of students make the agenda more innovative. We need them to challenge the old ideas of people like me and make the discourse young and fresh.”

“How can we avoid people saying in Africa and Latin America that internationalisation is a neo-colonial, imperialist and Western concept?” De Wit asked. “Please challenge us with excellent research on what you think about the internationalisation of higher education.”


Professor Sandra Klopper, a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town, said that as the world became more interconnected and interdependent, “we are constantly reminded that attention needs to be paid to attitudinal and ethical issues. We also need to consider curriculum renewal and development.

“Internationlisation provides opportunities for the refocusing of relations between centres and peripheries, not only geographically but also social, cultural and political ones. It allows us to consider the impact of context on the understanding of concepts.

“There is a need to fragment hierarchies in the organisation of knowledge and to ensure that ideas of intercultural competencies, like the notion of multiculturalism, do not serve existing interests. e-Learning can help in ensuring peripheries become centres and vice versa,” Klopper argued.

De Wit agreed, saying that internationalisation as a concept and strategy for higher education was still very new, especially as a strategy for leadership of universities. But there was a pressing need for better understanding and as a field of research it was developing rapidly.

“That’s why there’s so much interest among young researchers. They see the world changing and higher education changing and the international dimension changing, so there are good motivations to do research into internationalisation.”

Professor Derek Swemmer of the University of the Free State asked if there were universities worldwide that were becoming role models for curricula that talk across borders. More universities were understanding the need to make better use of the experiences of international students, for instance regarding intercultural competencies, replied De Wit.

“What we know is that we should not bring in international students and just use local books and examples. But what we should be doing needs more research. There will not just be one model, and we would do different things for sports or education. We must also know what employers want. Technology can help – students don’t have to go abroad anymore.

“We have to move away from standard answers and look at new opportunities.”