Reading between the lines - Global internationalisation survey

In April the International Association of Universities, or IAU, published its 4th Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education, the fourth since 2003. This overview of trends and issues in the internationalisation of higher education is published every three years and provides valuable insights for scholars and practitioners in international higher education about the priorities, drivers, obstacles, benefits and funding of internationalisation.

The fact that in this fourth survey the IAU has partnered with other key players such as the European Commission, British Council, the Association of International Educators - NAFSA - in the United States and the European Association for International Education, or EAIE, has meant a substantial increase in the number of responses it has received: 1,336 institutions, nearly double that of the previous survey and almost 20% of all invitations sent out.

This high turnout is quite impressive and certainly has improved the representativeness of the results. Two serious limitations to this high response have to be noted though.

Firstly Europe, with 45% of the respondents, combined with 19% from North America, cover two thirds of the responses, overshadowing the rest of the world and making the overall outcomes of the survey less representative.

Secondly, the role of NAFSA in the US and EAIE in Europe may indeed have helped in increasing participation from Europe and the US, but may also have had an impact on who completed the survey. Senior international officers (31%) and staff members in international offices (11%), who form the constituency of these two associations, dominate the responses.

The results may therefore be more a reflection of their perceptions than of those of the heads and deputy heads of institutions - which combined, make up 30% of responses. Is the fact that 28% see the international office or the person responsible for internationalisation as the most important internal driver not an indication for this?

Since in the previous surveys the question about respondents' roles was not asked, we cannot be sure about this. But as other answers also suggest, it would not surprise us.

Shifting trends

The survey results provide valuable information on the current state of internationalisation from an institutional perspective and, by comparison with the previous surveys, also about shifting trends in internationalisation.

The report provides only a general picture and a comparative perspective between the different continents.

Further use and analysis of the data within the different regions, in particular in Europe and North America, could provide even more insight into the state of internationalisation on these continents and, within them, between different countries and sub-regions.

For instance, the 604 responses from Europe might allow for comparison between the UK and continental Europe - which differ strongly on internationalisation priorities - and between Northern, Southern, Western and Eastern Europe. The differences in strategies, governance, funding mechanisms, risks and obstacles between these different parts of Europe might provide insight into the diversity of approaches within Europe.

The fourth Global Survey can provide students and scholars with valuable data, and comparative options for their study of internationalisation in general, by dimension and by region. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that the results of the survey do not provide hard evidence, but primarily reflect the perceptions of those who completed the questionnaires.

Intentions versus reality

And some of the results in our view suggest that the answers might be motivated more by good intentions than by reality. We give two examples.

'Students' increased international awareness and engagement with global issues' (32%), followed by 'improved quality of teaching and learning' (18%), are together by far the most frequently given answers to the question about the expected benefits of internationalisation.

In addition, 31% of the respondents answered that the most significant risk associated with internationalisation is that institutional opportunities will be available only to students with financial resources.

In other words, the positive perception that speaks from these answers is that internationalisation should be more focused on all students instead of on a small elite and that all students should benefit from an internationalised curriculum.

But if we compare these answers to the answers on perceived priorities for internationalisation, 29% mention outgoing mobility opportunities followed only at a great distance by international content of the curriculum (13%).

In other words, although the politically correct perception is that internationalisation should address all students and not the small group that can afford it and-or is interested in it, the priority is still on outgoing student mobility. This is also confirmed by the aggregated result on what is considered the most important priority under internationalisation at home: the provision of student scholarships for outgoing mobility opportunities.

In other words, internationalisation still seems to be persistently perceived more as internationalisation abroad than at home, even in the context of a question about internationalisation at home.

The 'internationalisation at home' movement, which 15 years ago started to seek attention for the internationalisation of the non-mobile majority, has its work cut out.

A second interesting case is the fact that respondents from North America mention 'too much focus on recruitment of international fee-paying undergraduates' as a high institutional risk and 'overdependence on international students' and 'commodification and commercialisation of education' as being the highest societal risks.

How should we interpret these results in the face of a reality in which commodification and international students have always been key dimensions of North American internationalisation?

It may be a politically correct reaction to the fact that, with the number of commercial cross-border initiatives and international undergraduates strongly on the rise, there is more concern about the ethics and values of this increase.

But it may also be because a large group of international education administrators active in NAFSA is more committed to study abroad than to recruitment of international students and by providing these answers they distance themselves from other types of international activities in their institutions.

Valuable food for thought

It is hard to tell how to interpret these and some other answers given in the survey.

What should we think of the fact that the majority of respondents - with relatively little difference between the continents - indicate that they either have (35%) or are developing (22%) institution-wide learning outcomes related to international-global competencies, as the report states?

To us, this comes as a big surprise and we wonder, like the authors of the report, if this "might reflect a 'social desirability response' bias".

Projects like AHELO - the OECD's Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes - show us that learning outcomes and competences in general are still not universally accepted. With international and intercultural learning outcomes and competences even less clearly defined and accepted, how can we explain these results?

The picture does not become clearer when zooming in on discipline-specific learning outcomes in professional schools. These have been defined in all disciplines (20%), some disciplines (39%) or not at all (17%), while a remarkable 24% of respondents indicate that they do not know if they have been defined.

These observations and questions do not imply that one should ignore the findings of the survey as irrelevant. On the contrary: we have both acted as advisors for its design, methodology and reporting with much enthusiasm as it is a relevant overview of opinions and perceptions.

But - as the authors of the survey in a contextual introduction to the report also note - one has to view the answers in the light of the dynamism and complexity of internationalisation in higher education.

In that context, the survey provides valuable food for thought. It is both a good foundation and an incitement for further critical and comparative analysis.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Universita Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. He is also research associate at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Email: Jos Beelen is senior policy advisor for internationalisation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and a researcher and consultant on internationalisation of the curriculum. He also heads the Special Interest Group on Internationalisation at Home at EAIE. Email: