Internationalisation at home – Crossing other borders

It was about 15 years ago that the term ‘internationalisation at home’ was coined when a group of people – I was among them – started to talk and publish about it. In essence ‘internationalisation at home’ is about inclusion, diversity and reciprocity in international education, crossing borders by reaching out to 'otherness'.

Our original concern was that internationalisation in higher education was looking too much at student mobility numbers, in particular incoming students.

We were worried that often economically driven policies at institutions did not sufficiently consider the educational and cultural impacts of student interaction in the classroom and beyond. We felt an alternative voice was needed. It rang a bell.

Internationalisation at home quickly became an important policy issue in many universities, especially in North West Europe, where education is seen as a public good and the internationalisation of higher education as a way to improve the quality of teaching and learning for all students. But the European Commission also used the idea in its policy documents, as did universities in various other parts of the world.

Growth of internationalisation

Over the past decades, the internationalisation of higher education has seen tremendous growth. This is especially clear when we look at the ever-increasing number of mobile students – they have now reached over four million a year. However, this big number represents less than 2% of enrolment worldwide.

This raises fundamental questions. What do we do with non-mobile students, the vast majority at any university? How do we educate them to develop the international life skills necessary for the 21st century? How do we deal with cultural diversity, not far away but at home in our increasingly multicultural societies?

One important element is the internationalisation of the curriculum and bringing home students and international students together beyond classroom settings in the local community. And how do first-generation students from immigrant backgrounds feature in the diverse landscape of transcultural learning?

These are the main issues that come under internationalisation at home. They remain important today, perhaps even more so than 15 years ago.

When we take a closer look at the number of mobile students at universities it becomes evident that international education is foremost a business in English-speaking countries. They own a global market share of over 65% and talk about the ‘industry’ when referring to the internationalisation of higher education. Big economic and financial interests are at stake.

This is equally true for countries where students do not pay fees, like Germany. Graduates are ambassadors for life. Soft power is an important dimension of the quest for talent. Graduates are seduced to stay on after finishing degrees to contribute to the economy of their study destination.

Especially in the areas of science and technology where shortages are high, foreign knowledge workers are invited to fill the gap. The visa policies of national governments cover study and work to create a knowledge society.

The notion of study 'at home' has taken on a wholly new life with the impact of communication technology and the use of social media. Virtual and real mobility blur. Do students really leave 'home' when they are online all the time?

Transnational education makes it possible to earn a foreign degree while staying at home. British universities now award more degrees offshore than at home. What is the meaning of ‘international’ in this context?

Real experiences abroad – and at home

The main concern of internationalisation at home remains just as relevant today: what do we do with the vast majority of students who are not exposed to intercultural learning and an international experience? And here I mean real experiences.

It is clear that not all students will become mobile. It is not even desirable. Some institutions have reached a point of saturation when it comes to incoming mobility and the carbon footprint of internationalisation is another serious concern.

So innovative ways of introducing the international component in education are needed. We have to go back to the classroom at home.

How do we deliver the curriculum in such a way that all students profit – learners from different backgrounds at home and from around the world? How can they learn from one another? What can universities do to promote social activities outside the classroom in the local community?

This does not happen by itself. It requires a coherent internationalisation-at-home strategy at all levels.

Young people seek a degree for their own personal gain. International education is an instrument of self-interest and increasingly part of a career path and a way to define a lifestyle. Talent is a mobile commodity.

This brings me to a more fundamental thought.

What is the aim of higher education, and the goal of its internationalisation? You can sell and buy a degree, but providing education is more than offering courses. Unless students are motivated to truly engage and participate, little learning will happen.

Few would support the idea of degree mills, but look around at what is happening in the market. Are universities really investing enough in their learners, both domestic and international students? Are institutions teaching them to become critical thinkers or are they producing narrow-minded consumers?

Is global internationalisation contributing to a situation of mass higher education around the world whereby we are all overqualified and undereducated? These are big questions for everyone involved in higher education: at home.

* Hanneke Teekens is on the board of directors of Nuffic, and within Nuffic is responsible for the Information Services directorate, overseeing all aspects of communications, including education support offices in 10 countries. She is also chair of the board of the Association for Studies in International Education, ASIE, a group of organisations whose mission is to encourage international education and research and that publishes the Journal of Studies in International Education. Teekens spoke on internationalisation at home at the Academic Cooperation Association 20th anniversary conference on internationalisation and international mobility from 9-11 June.

* Nuffic – the Netherlands organisation for international cooperation in higher education – is an independent, non-profit organisation based in The Hague. It supports internationalisation in higher education, research and professional education in The Netherlands and abroad, and helps to improve access to higher education worldwide.