Who owns internationalisation?

Towards the end of 2014, in his interesting ‘One thought to start the day’ blog, Alex Usher asked the intriguing question: “Who owns internationalisation?”

He raises the issue in the context of Canadian internationalisation, described by him as rather fragmented, but the question is relevant generally for higher education institutions and also for national governments. We use the terms mainstream or comprehensive internationalisation more and more, which supposes that there is no fragmentation but an integrated strategic approach to internationalisation.

However, what Alex describes for Canada is what I encounter in many settings around the world. He writes: “Part of the reason for this fragmentation is that internationalisation isn't a single activity, but rather a process that affects a whole range of other activities in which universities normally engage.

“To the extent that internationalisation is about research connections, it tends to get run through a vice-president research office. To the extent it's about recruiting students, it's typically a purpose-built unit reporting to a provost, but functionally linked (often uncomfortably) to the admissions office.

“To the extent that it's about attracting foreign faculty, it's completely ad hoc, and run by departments according to their own needs. To the extent that internationalisation is about creating agreements/MOUs with institutions all over the world, well, that's a dog's breakfast, because these agreements don't all deal with the same issues.”

When I am presenting or training on internationalisation strategies for institutions and/or governments, two related questions come up frequently: does mainstreaming of internationalisation mean the same as comprehensive internationalisation? And does internationalisation imply that there is no more need for a central international office and/or a senior international officer/vice-rector for international affairs?

I must confess that on the first question I considered for a long time that the two are basically the same labels used to re-emphasise the vision of internationalisation as a process, the first one used more in the European context and the other in the North American one. But, increasingly, I have come to the conclusion that they emphasise two different approaches.

Mainstreaming internationalisation

Mainstreaming implies that internationalisation is no longer a separate pillar of university policies and strategies but integrated into all other pillars: education, research, human resources, finances, student affairs, faculties, etc.

Perceived this way, there is indeed no need for a vice-rector for international affairs, and the international office becomes an administrative unit under student services while departments such as academic affairs make internationalisation a task of one of their policy advisors.

At the same time, most of the activities, initiatives and strategies are decentralised to the faculties. This happened, for instance, in my own university, the University of Amsterdam, when I stepped down as vice-president for international affairs, but I have seen other examples. In this mainstreaming process, fragmentation can happen easily and ownership of the process might get lost.

As Usher says: “It's not quite true to say that `no one's in charge’ of internationalisation because every one of these processes has someone in charge, at least nominally. Operationally, identifiable people are in charge of recruiting international students, dealing with international student services, and so on. But it's very rare to see anyone knitting the work of these various processes together into a coherent whole. That is to say, there is lots of operational authority in internationalisation, but very little in the way of strategic authority over internationalisation.”

Comprehensive internationalisation

Comprehensive internationalisation, though, requires an integrated approach which involves all administrative and academic entities within the institution having to develop an international dimension, but where integral strategic coordination between these dimensions is essential so as to avoid fragmentation and to guarantee comprehensiveness.

Otherwise there is the risk, in the words of Alex Usher, that institutions lose the ability “to steer internationalisation policy across the various areas in a common way”. And he continues:

“Where institutional coherence is abandoned, internationalisation can thus look a lot like an excuse for administrators to swan around the world to no obvious discernible purpose to anyone inside the organisation. This situation pushes cynicism of internationalisation well above general faculty levels of scepticism about administration.”

So comprehensive internationalisation is more effective than mainstreaming internationalisation, but only when there is a coherent approach and governance structure and where the ownership is clearly established and positioned.

Internationalisation has to leave international offices and become integrated into all aspects of the institution, but not at the cost of institutional coordination and ownership.

Usher points to an essential concern in the current striving for comprehensive internationalisation: “What is needed is sustained attention from someone who has the clout to demand some policy coherence. Unfortunately, this is precisely what's lacking on many campuses.” Not only in Canada, but also elsewhere.

Practising what you preach

But there is more to this issue. As Jos Beelen and I commented on the results of the fourth global survey on internationalisation by the International Association of Universities in University World News last May, there seems to be a discrepancy between perceptions of internationalisation, how it is reflected in policies and the reality on the ground.

According to the survey, 16% of universities claim to have integrated internationalisation into their overall strategy, which might imply that they have mainstreamed or developed a comprehensive integrated strategy. My experiences are that this does not necessarily show that they are really mainstreamed and definitely does not demonstrate that they are comprehensive.

A recent experience in a European university whose name I will not provide here because it is not a unique case, confirmed my doubts. This university has integrated internationalisation as one of the key pillars of its overall strategy. But the way it has done so is contrary to the notion of comprehensiveness.

First, because internationalisation is included as a separate pillar without any explicit relation to the other pillars, focusing on research, education and service to society.

Second, the strategy for internationalisation was very much focused on implementation of activities and not on goals and objectives so was not very strategic at all.

Third, the ownership of internationalisation was divided between the central level and faculties and at the central level between different vice-rectors and administrative units, with the International Office as the leading actor.

In other words, in the way strategy is documented it looks like it is comprehensive. In the way it is executed it is extremely fragmented and barely strategic. Again, this is not a unique example. I have seen several other ones around the world which look quite similar.

National level

What I have described above for the institutional level applies also to the national level. Internationalisation of higher education should not be an isolated activity in an international unit of the Ministry of Education or Foreign Affairs.

Increasingly, internationalisation requires a comprehensive national strategy involving several ministries such as Economic Affairs (skilled immigration, employability, marketisation of higher education), Justice and Internal Affairs (immigration), etc.

At a national level the question of ownership is also relevant. The Education Ministry should take the lead and at a more senior level than currently is the case in most countries, but should not compete with other ministries. Rather, it should coordinate a comprehensive national strategy, as well as strategies at the regional and local level, such as initiatives to promote ‘educational cities’ or ‘brain ports’.

One could say that such regional and local entities within a national strategy act in a similar way to the relationship between institutions and faculties.

Along with Usher, I am of the opinion that it is too easy to advocate comprehensive internationalisation and claim that all stakeholders should take ownership of it without the sustained attention from a senior officer or even office to coordinate and lead the process – at the institutional level, but also at the national level.

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 a research associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Email: