Students should be at the centre of internationalisation

As educators, we need to be aware of the forces that shape the future of education and the world for which we prepare graduates. A major factor that will shape the global demand for higher education relates to the development of middle-class populations throughout the world.

The predictions for the development of the middle-classes globally show that by 2030 the Asia-Pacific region will dominate the world in terms of absolute numbers and the proportion of its population that will belong to the middle-class. The main consumers of tertiary education globally will be the offspring of middle-class parents.

The shifting balance of middle-income earners towards the Asia-Pacific region has implications for the nature and location of a professionally and academically educated workforce.

We need to let go of the thought that the West is, and continues to be, at the forefront of all developments. We need to let go of the notion that the centre point of economic gravity remains in the West, as that is simply not going to be the case.

The rate of change will accelerate over the next decade-and-a-half and we need to ensure that our graduates will be able to work and contribute gainfully over more than three times that period.

Interculturally capable students

If, as we and many other institutes of higher education claim – according to the International Association of Universities' Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education – our graduates are educated in such a way as to be able to apply their skills and knowledge regardless of the cultural context in which they find themselves, then we have our work cut out to make sure that our education delivers on that promise.

In 2011 a number of papers appeared in the literature on higher education that started to question the nature of and motivation for internationalisation.

Are we on the right track? Are we delivering our promise of making graduates truly interculturally capable and internationally aware? What definitions have we used to drive the internationalisation of higher education?

The question of definition

For a long time we all have worked with the definition of Jane Knight, adjunct professor in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada:

“Internationalisation at the national, sector and institutional levels is defined as the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education.”

This definition is comprehensive and does not say anything about why one would want to internationalise higher education or what the outcomes of the internationalisation processes would be. Knight deliberately formulated this as neutral to allow for the many and varied interpretations, motivations and outcomes related to this process.

The value of the definition by Knight is that from the perspective of university management it talks about a process of integrating certain dimensions into the normal functions of a university.

The disadvantage of the definition is that it does not address learners in the way that we think about them in respect of other elements of the learning process.

Another disadvantage is that the measurement of success in internationalisation tends to focus on enumerating the extent of student mobility across the institution and ticking boxes as to whether features of individual programmes exist or not.

Indeed, some of these parameters have ended up counting towards global ranking and world-class status. Is bigger or more better? The focus was on how institutions performed rather than on students.

Internationalisation of the curriculum

Professor Betty Leask, dean of teaching and learning in the division of business at the University of South Australia, directed the attention on internationalisation towards the curriculum. Leask noticed that internationalisation of the curriculum in the many and varied disciplines that exist in higher education institutions was poorly understood.

She addressed this issue with a research project that “sought to explore, make explicit, and disseminate the meaning of internationalisation of the curriculum in different disciplines”. Internationalisation of the curriculum was defined by Leask as:

“the incorporation of an international and intercultural dimension into the content of the curriculum as well as the teaching and learning arrangements and support services of a programme of study. An internationalised curriculum will engage students with internationally informed research and cultural and linguistic diversity. It will purposefully develop their international and intercultural perspectives as global professionals and citizens.”

A salient point of Leask’s arguments was that she called for a structured approach with disciplinary teams, thereby acknowledging the variability of the internationalisation landscape. This time the focus shifted towards deliberately creating experiences for students in both the formal and informal curriculum.

Why not focus on the student and consider internationalisation of higher education in terms of the learner? This is about the learner who enters higher education with prior learning from secondary education and leaves us for the next phase in their lifelong learning quest.

* Dr Robert Coelen is professor of internationalisation of higher education and executive dean at Stenden University Qatar, and vice-president international at Stenden University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands.