Broadening ambitions for international education

Recent race protests around Australia and the rise of the Reclaim Australia movement and others like it suggest the federal government’s ambitions for international education will need to broaden if racist and xenophobic attitudes are to be curtailed.

Although the federal government’s Draft National Strategy for International Education claims to take “a broad view of what constitutes international education”, its focus is disappointingly narrow.

The document emphasises the economic benefits of international education – as “our largest services export industry” – at the expense of the civic and social. Nevertheless, there is some acknowledgement of the importance of fostering an international outlook among Australian students and researchers.

How this might be achieved in a country divided around issues of race, nationality and security is a question the draft strategy fails to address. Successive Australian governments consistently fail to recognise the broad contribution that international education can make toward realising an Australia where all share the values and richness of a pluralistic, globalised and mobile society.

We agree that ‘getting the fundamentals right’ and ‘staying competitive’ are important goals for the sector and the nation as beneficiaries of international education. Yet, with its heavy focus on commercial opportunities, productivity and human resource capital development for the 21st century, the strategy seems to assume that educational, social and civic benefits will follow “naturally”.

Yes, international students and outbound mobility do enhance the opportunities for deep engagement with other cultures and worldviews. However, international exposure alone is insufficient.

Similar observations can be made in other regions where international educational policy is focused on positioning in the international market, student recruitment, research collaboration and network consolidation and the commodification and commercialisation of the educational experience.

Internationalisation of the curriculum

Broadening students’ mindsets and dispositions requires a learning experience that is structured, integrated and coordinated in a systematic way through an internationalised curriculum. Internationalisation of the curriculum is addressed in the strategy, albeit superficially. This is not new or unique to the Australian higher education sector.

If internationalisation of the curriculum were a priority, why does it receive so little attention? For example, the Office for Learning and Teaching or OLT, the peak funding body for research and development that improves the quality of teaching and learning across the university sector, had internationalisation as a priority for its funding regime. Yet this was removed in 2014-15 and, although several important projects received funding in the past, much more needs to be done.

A missed opportunity

Internationalisation of the curriculum is not easily achievable and is often over-simplified. It is a complex and challenging undertaking because it involves a range of stakeholders, positions and understandings.

Importantly, curriculum internationalisation must be undertaken by those who teach students – lecturers at the coalface, in every discipline. Many academics lack the time and support needed for curriculum innovation; some are ill-disposed to the idea of spending more time on their teaching; and few are rewarded for it.

Indeed, building on the significant body of work undertaken by OLT Fellow Professor Betty Leask, our own research across several Australian universities has highlighted the challenges.

Arguably, those responsible for internationalising the curriculum, like the concept itself, are largely ignored. In the strategy, academics are first associated with research capability and collaboration. Then their role in mobility is recognised. Yet their role in the development of an internationalised curriculum is not explicitly recognised, nor the importance of supporting them in this process.

The assumption that all academics are able and, indeed, willing to engage in this form of curriculum innovation and teaching is erroneous. The evidence, to date, clearly identifies a broad range of blockers and disincentives for disciplinary-based academics.

While universities espouse internationalisation at the policy level, the translation into teaching practice, learning spaces and curriculum is less than apparent. This is true across most regions and university internationalisation policies.

In the draft strategy, this is reflected in the frequency with which ‘internationalisation’ and ‘internationalising curriculum’ appear - a total of three times only throughout the document. Accordingly, ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’ in Australian universities is intended to ‘help all students… develop self-reliance, people skills, general employment skills’, ‘be better prepared to participate in the global economy’ and ‘generate personal connections that provide career benefits and promote goodwill’.

In short, an ‘internationalised curriculum is vital to stay[ing] competitive’, but there is no recognition of its potential to build a better, more united country. The strategy therefore represents another missed opportunity to recognise the wide-ranging benefits of curriculum innovation, as well as the challenges inherent in moving from rhetoric into practice, policy into classroom and heads into hearts.

The international and domestic research on internationalisation of the curriculum clearly shows how important it is to engage the hearts and minds of academics, who are ultimately responsible for developing, teaching and guiding their students as they prepare to live, as well as work, in an increasingly pluralist Australia and interconnected, interdependent world.

Craig Whitsed is a senior lecturer at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Wendy Green is a senior lecturer in learning and teaching at the University of Tasmania.