Intelligent internationalisation: A 21st century imperative

One of the most important issues facing higher education around the world for the next two decades is the crucial need for “intelligent internationalisation”.

As a response to globalisation, as a strategy for enhanced quality or visibility, or as an isomorphic response to developments in the environment, internationalisation is arguably one of the most significant issues currently affecting higher education institutions across the globe.

Internationalisation may be seen as both a cause and an effect of the advent of the global knowledge economy. To varying degrees across national and institutional contexts, it is also the manifestation of fundamental – and still evolving – changes in the way we think about what constitutes relevant, high-quality tertiary education today.

Mobility is still “king” in most internationalisation discussions, and growing student mobility numbers worldwide indicate that mobility will continue to be highly significant for the foreseeable future. However, in many countries, crucially important aspects of the internationalisation agenda are now moving from the periphery to the centre, in matters of both policy and practice.

We see this clearly in the long-overdue, rising prominence of the discussion around “internationalisation at home”, the increasing importance placed by universities on developing and sustaining international partnerships of both breadth and depth, and growing interest in providing more internationally and inter-culturally oriented training and support for faculty and staff.

Growing pressure

Meanwhile, these developments are unfolding against a backdrop of unprecedented complexity and flux for higher education, more broadly. Political, economic, and social developments are exerting enormous pressures on higher education to (among other things) “perform”, “respond”, “innovate”, “incubate”, “evaluate” and “lead”. The internationalisation agenda is deeply implicated in these processes.

Dealing effectively with this complexity requires a commitment to “intelligent internationalisation” grounded in a body of knowledge that coherently encompasses both theory and practice aimed at improving our understanding of the complex realities of internationalisation locally and globally.

It demands a commitment to the training of thoughtful practitioners in the field, working in tandem with researchers, policy-makers and institutional leaders who are sensitive to the practicalities that reside within the “big issues” dominating so many strategic discussions about internationalisation today.

A thoughtful alliance

Around the world, there are research centres and programmes devoted to the education and training of higher education professionals, many of which seem to be concerned about matters of internationalisation. But the scope of these research and training efforts is very unclear, as is the quality of the products they produce or the training they provide.

Equally, there is a very uncertain connection between the needs for information and expertise by policy-makers and practitioners, and what researchers and educators-trainers actually produce.

“Intelligent internationalisation” demands the development of a thoughtful alliance between the research, practitioner and policy communities. Those participating in the elaboration of internationalisation activities and agendas must have access to the information, ideas and professional skill-building opportunities that will enhance their ability to navigate the complex and volatile higher education environment of the next 20 years.

Laura E Rumbley is associate director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: This article first appeared in the current edition of International Higher Education .