Beware cutting back on support for HE in the developing world

Internationalisation of higher education in the past was based more on national policies and strategies than is currently the case. With the exception of the United States, which has never had a national policy, in other industrialised countries the international dimension in higher education was strongly guided by national objectives and priorities two decades ago.

Over the past 20 years, though, the emphasis had shifted to a more diverse institutional focus on internationalisation, stimulated in Europe by the Bologna process. There appeared to be less need for a common national approach to internationalisation in the global knowledge economy – but there are signs of a revival.

A recent phenomenon is the development of national policies in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom, and even some signs of a national focus in the United States (skilled immigration, global citizenship).

Some other countries, such as India, Malaysia, Romania, South Africa and The Netherlands, are also working on a new national policy for internationalisation.

The drivers behind these national policies are diverse: strengthening human capacity by increasing the immigration of talent and scholars and the development of global professionals; generation of revenue by increasing the number of full-cost fee-paying students; the creation of a stronger research base; increased profile; and status of the national knowledge base.

The common factor in most of these initiatives seems to be more national interest than international orientation. The time when national policies were oriented towards cooperation and exchange and capacity building for developing countries seems far distant.

This is also the case for emerging economies like Brazil, India, Malaysia and South Africa. The Science without Borders policy of the Brazilian government, for instance, is driven by the need for human capacity development for further growth of the Brazilian economy, as are similar initiatives elsewhere.

In itself there is nothing wrong with this focus on national interest, as long as it does not exclude other forms of cooperation and solidarity.

The support that the Brazilian government gives to Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa as well as the open policy of South Africa to students from SADC – Southern African Development Community – countries are positive examples of solidarity in higher education in emerging economies.

There is more to be feared from the approach of developed countries to higher education.

Where the international dimension in higher education in Europe, Northern America and Australia until the 1980s was primarily driven by development cooperation – capacity building and scholarship schemes – this aspect of internationalisation has since been overshadowed by other rationales.

Negative consequences of recent developments

The current economic crisis in combination with the revival of nationalism implies that budget cuts in capacity building and scholarship schemes for students from developing countries are becoming increasingly the norm in many countries that up to now had maintained a strong focus and budget for development cooperation, such as The Netherlands.

And developing countries are more critical about the severe terms and conditions set by the old economies for technical assistance; and prefer the less bureaucratic, fast and ample support provided by countries such as China.

One cannot stress enough the potential negative consequences of these developments, both for donor countries in Europe and Northern America and for receiving countries.

There has always been a long-term self interest in development cooperation: creating strong relationships for the future. But a too fast movement towards and too short-term focus on self interest borne from deep cuts to capacity building and scholarship schemes might in the long term be counterproductive.

This short-term thinking might also negatively impact on donor countries because it will cut them off from the rich knowledge in the developing world, which is not in their long-term interest.

And for developing countries, a shift to less conditioned support with a focus on infrastructure – new universities, new facilities – without investment in human capacity, might also be short sighted.

The 2012 International Association of Universities Call for Action: Affirming academic values in internationalisation of higher education, addressing the idea that competition is increasingly taking the place of collaboration as the foundation for internationalisation, tackles the potential adverse consequences of this shift.

The plan calls on institutions of higher education “to revisit and affirm internationalisation’s underlying values, principles and goals, including but not limited to: intercultural learning; inter-institutional cooperation; mutual benefit; solidarity; mutual respect; and fair partnership”.

This call should not only be directed at institutions of higher education but should also form the foundation of national policies for internationalisation.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Catholic University in Milan and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education and of the SAGE Handbook of International Higher Education. Email: