We need to change the language of internationalisation

Reports, documents, communiqués and papers offer a constant flow of writing about the relevance of internationalisation of higher education for the economy and society. These give the impression that higher education leaders and ministers of education are indeed convinced of its value and importance.

The top-ranked finding for the benefits of internationalisation in the International Association of Universities, or IAU’s 4th Global Survey (2014) is students’ increased international awareness and engagement with global issues (at 32%), with the second most popular benefit being improvement in the quality of teaching and learning.

In a joint vision document issued in May 2014, the Dutch Associations of Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences stated that internationalisation is not a goal in itself but is embedded in research and education and provides an important contribution to the quality of these.

And the Dutch minister of education in her so-called vision letter on internationalisation of higher and vocational education to the Dutch parliament on 15 July 2014 stated that “internationalisation is essential for the acquisition of knowledge, skills and professional competences”.

Also, the European Commission’s 2013 report, European Higher Education in the World, emphasises ‘internationalisation at home’ as of key importance, moving away from its traditional rather exclusive focus on mobility.

A disconnect

Similar statements appear in other national and institutional policy documents. These are fine perceptions and intentions, but what do they mean in practice?

It is more difficult to convince the outside world, employers in particular, of the importance of internationalisation.

The recent Erasmus Impact Study notes an increase from 37% in 2006 to 64% in 2013 in the importance that employers place on study abroad. The same study found that 92% of employers are looking for ‘transversal’ skills, also known as employability or transferable skills.

These are precisely the kind of skills that students are developing through their mobility experiences so it is hardly surprising that employers value study abroad, without necessarily understanding why.

However, there is still a disconnect between the three key stakeholders in the internationalisation process: universities, students and employers.

Firstly, universities may not be aware of studies which show clearly that effective mobility experiences develop organisational skills, project management, problem solving, networking, teamwork and mediation skills, among others.

These, of course, sit alongside interpersonal and intercultural communication skills, which are traditionally thought of as being the main outcomes of internationalisation.

Secondly, as a result of this lack of awareness, universities may fail to communicate these benefits either to students or their potential employers. Thus, students may talk about their international experience during the interview process, but do not always stress precisely why it has been so valuable in terms of skills development.

Employability skills

The connection between internationalisation and employability for these three groups of stakeholders would be strengthened if we focused less on the mobility experience itself and more on the personal and professional outcomes of the experience that will support future employment.

But it is not enough simply to concentrate on the results of mobility. The fact that a minority of students take part in mobility experiences as part of their studies reminds us of the importance of internationalisation of the curriculum at home for all students.

There still seems to be insufficient appreciation by employers that all students can benefit from intercultural as well as international experiences.

Why is this? Maybe it is because we are not able to convey the message in the right way using the right language. Perhaps faculty remain unconvinced and do not communicate the benefits to students and employers because we do not yet have the same volume of evidence that such skills can be developed in a domestic context.

Those studies that do support this view suggest that an experiential intercultural experience can deliver similar outcomes to international mobility. However, more research is needed to provide a significant evidence base.

It seems clear that we should use the language of employers and focus on their needs if we are to highlight the benefits of internationalisation for future employment and so emphasise its importance to students, employers and universities alike.

A recent article reported in Time magazine suggests 10 job skills which will be needed in 2020. The list is similar to those found elsewhere, but uses the kind of language which contemporary employers will value, such as sense-making, social intelligence and novel and adaptive thinking.

Linking the outcomes of internationalisation to this kind of terminology will show its value more effectively than generic and more academic terms such as ‘internationalisation’ or ‘international and intercultural competences’.

A focus on transferable skills is not only relevant in getting the attention and commitment of employers; the same is true for faculty.

In the IAU Global Survey, higher education leaders complained that academics have too little experience, expertise, interest and engagement in and capacity for internationalisation. It is too easy, though, to blame academics for a lack of internationalisation.

Tackling the workload issue

Faculty are understandably concerned about additional workload and any new tasks may be seen as extra work above their regular teaching and research load.

So on the one hand, they may be asked to incorporate internationalisation into the curriculum, but also, separately, to develop employability skills. Drawing the two together and embedding them in the existing curriculum, rather than as an add-on, will help to promote the relevance of each and minimise any additional work.

Referring to knowledge, skills and competences in academics’ own language and in the context of their own discipline, an international dimension can be integrated into mainstream work and need not be considered as something extra.

For academics research always has been, and rightly always will be, considered as international.

Incorporating international dimensions into teaching, learning and assessment should be considered to be just as natural, building on existing expertise and practice, but making more explicit the international and intercultural elements of the discipline through modified learning outcomes.

Engagement and ownership of internationalisation of the curriculum by faculty and appreciation of the value of its outcomes by universities and employers is a pre-condition for effective and comprehensive internationalisation.

Students can then also be encouraged to appreciate the benefits of internationalisation, whether at home or abroad. Maybe we should use the word ‘internationalisation’ less and connect it more to the international and intercultural dimensions of personal transferable skills and learning outcomes.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. He is also research associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Email:

* Elspeth Jones is emerita professor of the internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom and honorary visiting fellow in the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. She is editor of the book series, Internationalisation in Higher Education (Routledge). Email: