Emerging agreement on internationalising the curriculum

Internationalisation of the curriculum is a much-discussed topic. A search on Google using the words ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’ yields ‘about 952,000 results’. When the search is refined to ‘internationalisation of the curriculum in Australia’ there are ‘about 323,000 results’.

There are links to university websites and scholarly articles, blogs and online discussions as well as articles such as this. But what do these figures really mean, beyond the fact that there has been a lot written about internationalisation of the curriculum, both internationally and in an Australian context?

There are two things that are immediately obvious from this vast collection of information about internationalisation of the curriculum in Australia.

First, it seems to suggest that in many universities in Australia internationalisation of the curriculum is seen as important and relevant. Most, if not all, universities devote at least some space to it on their websites.

Second, internationalisation of the curriculum is variously described and defined in Australia. Some universities use general definitions that are over 10 years old; others have adopted more recent definitions or developed their own.

There is a vast array of descriptions in the literature and on websites of what ‘an internationalised curriculum’ might look like in practice and a range of guidelines and checklists on how best to go about the process of internationalisation of the curriculum.

It seems to be a work in progress, although a lot has already been done. Some explicitly recognise curriculum internationalisation as a continual, ongoing process. Perhaps because of this there does not appear to be much agreement about what ‘it’ looks like and how to make ‘it’ happen.

Agreement on several key points

Despite the various interpretations of what internationalisation of the curriculum means in different contexts, if we look more closely, it is also clear that there is agreement around several important points.

The first is that internationalisation of the curriculum in Australia is not understood any more as being only, or even principally, about teaching international students.

The presence of international students in increasing numbers in Australia in the past 25 years has in part been a driver for the process of internationalisation of the curriculum, the focus being on modifying content to make the curriculum accessible to international students.

But it is generally agreed in Australia today that it is not enough to focus internationalisation of the curriculum solely on teaching international students. Rather, the focus needs to be on all students.

Indeed, increasingly in recent times the use of the terms ‘international student’ and ‘domestic student’, and the polarisation this suggests, is seen as obscuring the diversity within both groups and the need to focus on teaching all students well.

The second point about which there is general agreement is that internationalisation of the curriculum is connected with globalisation. Most universities feel a responsibility to prepare all graduates to live and work in a global society.

A common approach to this task in Australia is to focus on the systematic development of graduate attributes (sometimes called ‘graduate qualities’) related to internationalisation and globalisation.

Typically such strategies have been focused primarily on the formal curriculum, emphasising the development of a broad range of skills, knowledge and attitudes. These include communicating and working effectively across cultures, the ability to think globally and consider issues from a variety of perspectives, awareness of own culture, and the capacity to apply international standards and practices within the discipline or professional area.

A complementary focus on the informal curriculum has also recently emerged (the informal curriculum being those various extracurricular activities that take place on campus and are not part of the formal requirements of the degree or programme of study).

Such approaches focus internationalisation strategies on all students, not just international students, or those Australian students who are internationally mobile. Such approaches are typically flexible, creative and clearly focused on internationalised learning outcomes.

The goal is a student experience that will prepare graduates to live and work effectively in a rapidly changing and increasingly connected world, perhaps even making a positive contribution to solving some of the world’s big problems.

The third point of agreement is that academics are key players in the process of internationalisation of the curriculum. Most of the materials on university websites are provided to support the work of academic staff seeking to internationalise their curricula.

This would seem appropriate given that, as leading scholars in their disciplinary fields, they control the curriculum, and internationalisation of the curriculum is fairly obviously, therefore, their responsibility. They are the group ultimately responsible for what is taught, how it is taught and how it is assessed.

The fourth point of agreement is that approaches to and interpretations of internationalisation of the curriculum vary across disciplines – representatives of ‘hard, pure’ disciplines such as science and mathematics being less open to recognising the cultural construction of knowledge than their colleagues in the ‘softer, applied’ disciplines such as nursing and education.

Scientists and mathematicians are renowned for arguing that their discipline is in and of itself, by definition, ‘international’. Many, but not all of them, argue that knowledge in their field is culturally neutral and therefore universal.

Others argue that those who make such claims are working within a culturally defined and therefore limited frame of reference and are blinded by their own disciplinary cultural conditioning.

Internationalisation varies across disciplines

It is this variety of interpretation of meaning that for some is the most puzzling and damning, and for others the most obvious and liberating, characteristic of internationalised curricula – they are different in different disciplines.

Some conclude that this variation in interpretation is because the concept is at best poorly defined and, at worst, lacking any legitimacy.

Others, however, conclude that because the curriculum is appropriately and properly controlled by disciplinary-based academics, and the disciplines are distinctive and different in many ways, an internationalised curriculum should and will look unique in different disciplinary contexts.

The distinctive history and culture of disciplines and professions mean that it is different to ‘be a mathematician, think like a mathematician and act like a mathematician’, to ‘be an engineer, think like an engineer and act like an engineer’ and to ‘be a nurse, think like a nurse and act like a nurse’. We expect that mathematicians, nurses, engineers, doctors and artists and so on will think and act differently, locally and internationally.

Furthermore, a recent Australian study found that both the process of internationalisation of the curriculum and its product, an internationalised curriculum, will also be influenced by other factors, such as institutional mission and culture, local professional accreditation requirements and the relationship between neighbouring nations in the region (very different in Europe, Asia and Africa, for example).

The study, funded by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching (see, found that the variation in interpretation of what an internationalised curriculum looks like is largely due to the interaction between the different contexts within which the curriculum is both designed and enacted.

The interaction between local influences such as the culture and mission of the university, and national and global influences on the nature of work and the workplace, plays out differently in different disciplines.

Hence during the process of internationalisation of the curriculum it is important that academic staff work in programme teams to critically review current levels of internationalisation, confirm their rationale for further internationalising their curriculum, imagine new possibilities and agree on an action plan for achieving their goals.

The study found that plans might include a radical rethinking of the focus of the programme, the introduction of different types of learning and assessment activities for students in and out of class, and provision of opportunities for academic staff to develop their own international perspectives and intercultural competence through collaborative research.

Approached in this way, internationalisation of the curriculum provides academics with an intellectual challenge, the motivation to increase research collaboration with international colleagues and new opportunities to connect research with teaching. Everyone benefits.

But it also poses some challenges for universities. These include how to stimulate academics who may be reluctant to undertake the critical review and curriculum innovation that is crucial to the process. Another challenge is to ensure that once academics have decided to engage in the process they are appropriately supported through it.

Generic academic development programmes are insufficient for this task but academic developers, or those with expertise in learning and curriculum, can usefully inform the process when they work closely with discipline teams.

Finally, there is more work to be done on how to assess the learning outcomes of students involved in an internationalised curriculum, in particular how to assess the development of international perspectives and intercultural competence within the context of the programme of study.

Recent studies in other places suggest that these opportunities and challenges are not, however, unique to the Australian context. The challenges of internationalisation of the curriculum are, at least to some extent, international.

* Betty Leask is an associate professor in the internationalisation of higher education at the University of South Australia and an Australian National Teaching Fellow. She has been a member of the board of the International Education Association of Australia since 2008.