The benefits of true internationalisation

I wouldn’t try to predict the future of higher education, but I can see two likely features taking shape already. First is the increasing diversification of provision and provider. Second is internationalisation: as the world becomes more interconnected across borders, so the boundaries of higher education itself expand.

In recent months I’ve been thinking a lot about internationalisation. In March I spoke at a Westminster Higher Education Forum on internationalisation of higher education and in April I was at a conference in Madrid on cross-border education.

The conference in Madrid brought together several hundred experts in the Bologna process from across Europe and higher education reform experts from Tempus countries from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Western Balkans and the Mediterranean region.

When thinking about internationalisation, I always remember something I first heard over a decade ago at a conference in The Netherlands: just because a university has international students does not make it an international university.

Welcoming students from abroad is part of the equation, but internationalisation is not a one-way street; it is much more nuanced than this and can be done in numerous ways.


It was particularly interesting at the Madrid conference with representatives from more than 70 countries to see how internationalisation can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Some people talk about internationalisation, but only focus on one facet of it – for instance, mobile students who decide to study in another country, or the branch campuses that some universities have established in other countries.

These are indeed important aspects of internationalisation. But internationalisation is a multi-faceted phenomenon. We have to recognise that the way in which we engage in this will vary significantly depending on each university’s mission.

In the UK there is an increasing diversity of institutions – varying sizes, degree of focus on research, courses and type of qualification, public and private, part-time to accelerated courses. With such a diverse portfolio of universities it would be sad if there were a perception that there is only one way for a university to be international.

Fortunately this is not the case. To me, internationalisation evokes a near-infinite set of possibilities and opportunities for cross-pollination between people from different backgrounds.

This goes back to what academics do: they build a web of connections in the realm of ideas, creating solutions to problems old and new. To be innovative, a vibrant exchange of opinions is essential. Internationalisation represents one way to create this crucible of ideas.

In fact, internationalisation itself is a set of several different ways to achieve this. Just looking across the 1994 Group (of which I am executive director), you can tell they engage with internationalisation in a variety of ways.

Many of the members of the 1994 Group of research universities have strong research links and conduct joint research with universities across the globe. Truly international universities will have international perspectives on everything they do, from the staff and students they recruit to the curriculum they teach and the research they undertake.


Internationalisation is not an act, it is a habit. It is looking at everything a university does through an international lens. I explained that internationalisation is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The blend of international strategies any particular university adopts should be uniquely matched to its particular goals.

The second point I want to make is that internationalisation is not justified only by altruistic motives – there are economic grounds for going international, and going full steam with it.

The motivation for internationalisation is not that different from that for widening participation: it makes economic sense in the long term. This goes beyond the tuition fees that international students bring or even the economic impact of their living and spending in the UK.

There is more to internationalisation than simply injecting fresh blood into our economy. When our students or staff go overseas, whether temporarily or indefinitely, they make international connections and raise the global profile of our universities.

When people from abroad join our universities, they do not bring their ideas as they would bring a few items of clothing in their suitcase, donating the ones that are not suited, and acquiring more appropriate ones.

Instead, new staff and students share their ways of thinking with their peers, and everybody benefits from these new ideas, which spark the production of whole new lines of thinking – something like trading the contents of one suitcase for their own line of designer clothing.

In short, internationalisation allows us to tap into excellence across the globe. This could be portrayed as a very selfish view of internationalisation, and in a sense it is: our students, our academics, our universities, our economy, and our country all benefit.

Prospective students

This is true at the level of staff, whose job it is to come up with new ideas for their research and their teaching. But it is particularly relevant for students, who are precisely at the stage where they are actively developing their ways of thinking.

And so, institutions that attract international students and staff become even more attractive for all students and staff, whether international or from the UK.

The realm of new ideas that can be generated through interactions with peers from abroad is essentially boundless, and we see this across the board: the fastest pace of innovation comes from the interfaces between disciplines, between academia and business, between communities and cultures. And since the interesting stuff happens at the interface, it is not always true that bigger is better.

The characteristics of 1994 Group universities, with their combination of research intensity and personal attention, means that they are adept at ensuring that students and staff from abroad are integrated socially, stretched intellectually and benefit to the full from joining that institution.

Thanks to this, they can contribute actively, enriching the experience of UK students and staff around them as well.

They take great pride in being international universities and are well placed to support international students and staff who decide to come to a member of the 1994 Group.
Prospective students will need to seek out information about what kinds of international opportunities are available to them.

On the side of UK universities, we should make the process transparent, welcoming international students without tagging them as immigrant. We should also encourage our own students to build their portfolios overseas: full commitment to the Bologna process and quality assurance for all overseas courses would be a first step.

* Alex Bols is executive director of the 1994 Group of universities in the UK.