Misconceptions about (the end of) internationalisation

In 2011, I wrote two provocative essays. The first one, together with Uwe Brandenburg, had the provocative title “The End of Internationalisation”. We spoke of our concerns about an increasingly instrumentalist approach, a devaluation of the meaning of internationalisation and a lack of innovation, and warned that we should no longer take things for granted and that internationalisation needed to be reinvented for the future.

We made an appeal based on four points:
  • • We have to move away from dogmatic and idealistic concepts of internationalisation and globalisation.
  • • We have to understand the fundamental meaning of these concepts – not as goals in themselves but rather as means to an end.
  • • We have to throw off the veil of ignorance and ask ourselves: why do we do certain things, and do the things we do help us to achieve the goal of providing high quality education and research in a globalised knowledge society?
  • • We should carefully reconsider our preoccupation with how we achieve this goal and rather invest a lot more time in questions of rationales and outcomes.
The most important, in our view, was “to rethink and redefine the way we look at the internationalisation of higher education at the present time”.

In the same year, I wrote about misconceptions of internationalisation. Building on the previous essay I noted that there is still a predominantly activity-oriented or even instrumental approach towards internationalisation.

And I mentioned nine misconceptions, whereby internationalisation is regarded as synonymous with a specific programmatic or organisational strategy to promote internationalisation. In other words: where the means appear to have become the goal.

These two essays received quite some attention and created much debate in the field of international education and certainly have contributed to my recent nomination with my friend Mike Woolf as leading Provocateur in International Education.

Rethinking internationalisation

The essays also contributed to the start of a discussion by the International Association of Universities on rethinking internationalisation. In a publication on the Going Global Conference of 2012 I mentioned eight reasons for this need to rethink internationalisation, again building on the two previous essays:
  • • The discourse of internationalisation does not always match reality.
  • • The appearance of a new range of forms, providers and products and new, sometimes conflicting dimensions, views and elements have made an impact on the discourse of internationalisation.
  • • The international higher education context is rapidly changing. The emerging economies and the higher education community in other parts of the world are altering the landscape of internationalisation. This shift from a Western, neo-colonial concept, as ‘internationalisation’ is perceived by several educators, means incorporating other emerging views.
  • • Stakeholders, such as employers, and in particular faculty and student voices, are heard far less often, with the result that the discourse on internationalisation is insufficiently influenced by those who should benefit from its implementation.
  • • Too much of the discourse is oriented towards national and institutional levels with little attention paid to the programmes themselves. Research, the curriculum, and the teaching and learning process, which should be at the core of internationalisation, often receive little attention because of this.
  • • A qualitative, outcome-based approach on the impact of internationalisation initiatives is lacking.
  • • To date there has been insufficient attention to norms, values and the ethics of internationalisation practice.
  • • An increased awareness that the notion of ‘internationalisation’ is not only a question of the relations between nations, but even more about the relation between cultures and between the global and the local.
In other words: internationalisation in higher education has become a rather broad umbrella term under which, as I wrote in 2002, the motivations are quite diverse and lead to different means and ends.

Everybody has their own interpretation of the why, what and how of internationalisation, but is inclined to ignore other options and to summarise their own perception under the popular, and increasingly meaningless, term ‘internationalisation’.

A good example of the narrow view on internationalisation presented as a comprehensive view is the recent joint document of the Association of Dutch Universities, or VSNU, and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, Visie InternationaalVision International – of March 2014.

The document nearly exclusively focuses on attracting international students and increasing their stay rate and advocates for a renewal of the Scholarship Programme to make The Netherlands more attractive. In itself this is a good cause, but it is not a comprehensive vision on internationalisation, as it claimed to be.


In presentations, blogs, articles and books I have been building on these eight reasons for rethinking internationalisation, alone and together with others, in particular Elspeth Jones.

With her I wrote about the fact that internationalisation was not so much coming to an end, but that one of the fascinating new developments of the concept is its globalisation.

The rethinking process resulted in Affirming Academic Values in Internationalisation of Higher Education: A call for action, by the International Association of Universities in April 2012.

It also contributed to the ‘Global Dialogue on the Future of International Education’ organised by the International Education Association of South Africa, IEASA, in January 2014, and the Nelson Mandela Bay Global Dialogue Declaration (IEASA, 2014) signed by the key international education associations around the world on that occasion and focusing on three integrated areas of development:
  • • Enhancing quality and diversity in programmes involving the mobility of students and academic and administrative staff.
  • • Increasing the focus on internationalisation of the curriculum and related learning outcomes.
  • • Gaining commitment on a global basis to equal and ethical higher education partnerships.
I must confess that the blog I wrote with Nico Jooste on the dialogue and declaration also most likely contributed to my selection as leading provocateur, but it was and is not my intention nor that of Nico Jooste to deny the relevance of the declaration and the three focus points for the future of internationalisation agreed upon. We only wanted to strengthen the argument for a more inclusive role of non-traditional players in internationalisation.

From the above it becomes clear that over the past four years, a highly necessary, intense, stimulating and sometimes provocative debate about the future of internationalisation has taken place. Some of the directions the debate will go in are also taking shape but the main focus is still not well defined.

While MOOCs are seen by many as higher education’s Big Bang, it is worth asking what international education’s Big Bang will be?

There are no signs of an innovative approach being taken to internationalisation other than the increasing attention to virtual exchange and collaborative online international learning. So will the internet and social media lead to dramatic innovation in internationalisation, or are there other yet unknown external factors that will bring the necessary innovation?

Time will tell, but we could take a more proactive approach.

We are still on the long road towards implementation of innovation and adaptation to ever more rapidly changing global developments.

The current critical political and economic climate in the world and in particular in Europe where nationalism seems to have become more dominant than Europeanism or globalism, is not a solid foundation for more internationalisation.

There are some positive signs, though, such as the development of and increased budget for Erasmus+ and the new strategy, “European Higher Education in the World”, as well as studies that show the positive impact of study abroad on employability and European and global identity compared to non-mobile students.

But unfortunately, I have also noticed a continuing focus in national and institutional strategies on most of the misconceptions I identified in 2011: more teaching in English, more recruitment of international students, more study abroad, more partnerships, little assessment of international and intercultural learning outcomes, all for the sake of output and quantitative targets with no focus on impact and outcomes.

Another misconception

If I could add one main misconception to the list of nine, I would say: “You cannot define the what, how and outcome of internationalisation strategies without first having answered the ‘why?'”

Over the years I have been involved in the preparation and evaluation of many internationalisation strategies, at the (inter)national, institutional and programme level. And still in nearly all cases this question has not been or has only very superficially and marginally been answered.

But how can one define clear objectives and goals, and how can one define and assess the intercultural and international learning outcomes, without first having described the specific (inter)national, institutional and-or programmatic context and, based on that, the relevance of the internationalisation strategy?

If we do not constantly ask ourselves ‘why?’, instead of assuming that it is not a necessary question because internationalisation is positive in itself, internationalisation will be at an end.

Another important misconception I see concerns the relationship between global and local internationalisation:
  • • Local – that is, cities – is increasingly becoming a key actor more than national – that is, the state – because of globalisation and this is certainly also the case with higher education.
    Local, in the form of interculturality and diversity, is bringing global issues more directly to our doorstep and increasingly to those of higher education institutions, and the divide between intercultural and international is no longer relevant, just as the division between local and global no longer makes sense.
  • • The same applies to the professional field, which increasingly combines local and global dimensions. Take, for example, the health sector and law, two fields that 10 to 15 years ago were local and national and are now at the forefront of internationalisation.
This increased inter-relation between local and global in my view is an essential part of the future of internationalisation.

It will require that we, as international educators, look more than ever at what is happening elsewhere and do not stay in our own cocoon. I will give one example.

It is shocking to observe that, with the whole current focus on competition for top talent and skilled immigrants, no attention is paid to the presence of the large group of immigrants and refugees in our countries who – with support via groups like the Global Talent Bridge of World Education Services in the United States and organisations like the Foundation for Refugee Students, UAF, which helps refugee students with scholarships in The Netherlands – can and should form part of the new skilled workforce.

And so we come to another misconception: that local and global are two different things.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, CHEI, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy; honorary professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands; and research associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Email: This blog is based on the closing remarks he made on the occasion of his farewell seminar as professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, UASA, on 25 June 2014. He will continue to be linked to the UASA as honorary professor, continue as director of CHEI in Milan, and also continue with his other international activities, including this blog for University World News.