Academics must have key role in internationalisation

In the last decade, higher education institutions, national governments and national and international organisations have become more proactive, comprehensive, diverse and innovative in their approaches to internationalisation.

The importance of knowledge in the global economy, unmet demand for higher education in many parts of the world and increasing competition for talent in others, have resulted in an increasing focus on internationalisation in higher education across and within the regions of the world.

Critical reflection on the outcomes of these developments, and in particular their impact on student learning, combined with increasing concern with the state of the world, has resulted in a search for approaches to internationalisation that have deeper meaning and greater impact.

They reflect growing interest in ensuring that the majority of students and staff are engaged in and changed by the internationalisation agenda and are consistent with using internationalisation as a driver of quality and innovation.

They also have the potential to develop approaches that address existing inequalities in educational opportunity and outcomes in the world today. Three recent books address this issue from a different angle, but complement each other well.

Internationalising the curriculum in the disciplines

In their new book, Critical Perspectives on Internationalising the Curriculum in the Disciplines: Reflective narrative accounts from business, education and health, Wendy Green and Craig Whitsed explore the relationship between the internationalisation of higher education, the curriculum and academic disciplines, which is where policy meets practice in higher education.

This relationship is dynamic and complex. The curriculum is the vehicle by which the development of epistemological, praxis and ontological elements can be incorporated into the life and learning of today’s students, ensuring that they graduate ready and willing to make a positive difference in the world of tomorrow.

However, it is only relatively recently that questions related to the relationship between the internationalisation of higher education, the curriculum and academic disciplines have been explored in depth in many disciplines.

The editors asked academics in the disciplines of business, education and health “to describe and reflect on their joys, frustrations, challenges, achievements and importantly the outcomes for their students as they have engaged with IoC [internationalisation of the curriculum]”.

The resulting contributions bring much needed authentic perspectives and experiences on internationalising teaching and learning.

The emphasis on academic staff telling “real stories, which reflect on the process as well as the outcomes of the practice of internationalising the curriculum”, combined with the reflections and meta-narrative provided by the editors, add an important dimension to the discourse and practice of internationalisation of the curriculum at a time in the history of internationalisation in higher education when critical reflection is essential for all participants in this endeavour.

Today, more than ever before, it is important to remember that internationalisation is not a goal in itself but a means to enhance the quality of the education, research and service functions of higher education.

This edited collection reminds us that context influences the why, what and the how of internationalisation; that the way in which internationalisation of the curriculum is interpreted and enacted is therefore both similar and different across disciplines and fields of study; and that there is therefore no one model of internationalisation fit for all higher education systems, institutions and disciplines.

The contributions collected in this volume also illustrate the way internationalisation of the curriculum is evolving and what it involves. They demonstrate that the interrogation of dominant disciplinary paradigms, individual biases and commonly held beliefs associated with internationalisation of the curriculum requires imagination, problem-solving and creative thinking.

It is important and rigorous academic work that makes a valuable and unique contribution to the evolution of the broader internationalisation agenda in higher education institutions across the world.

Defining internationalisation of the curriculum

Discipline communities are a strong driver of academic staff knowledge, skills and attitudes to teaching, learning and curriculum design.

Disciplinary, institutional, local, national, regional and global factors interact in different ways to facilitate and inhibit, drive and shape approaches to internationalisation of the curriculum, including the way in which learning outcomes are defined, taught and assessed.

Hence we would expect to see approaches to internationalisation of the curriculum that are both similar and different within and across disciplines.

This topic is addressed in a second book by Betty Leask, Internationalisation of the Curriculum in Context. Building on her previous work, she asks herself: can we come to some international, if not global, agreement on at least the general characteristics of the concept and the process of internationalising the curriculum?

In a study conducted by Leask in 2012, a definition of internationalisation of the curriculum was tested and refined following feedback from academic staff and university leaders in different countries and regions of the world.

The resulting definition is broad enough to allow disciplinary-specific interpretations but focused enough to ensure key components of the curriculum are addressed and all students are influenced and included.

It states: “Internationalisation of the curriculum is the process of incorporating international, intercultural and global dimensions into the content of the curriculum as well as the learning outcomes, assessment tasks, teaching methods and support services of a programme of study.”

For an increasing number of students and scholars trying to get to grips with the internationalisation of the curriculum and learning outcomes, her book is an absolute must.

Law: from local to global

A third book, Rethinking the Law School: Education, research, outreach and governance, is by Carel Stolker, former dean of the law school of Leiden University in the Netherlands and currently its rector and president.

Law is one of those fields which, for a long time, has been rather nationally oriented. As Stolker remarks: “Law schools, by their nature, tend to think locally, not globally.”

The world and law, though, are changing and becoming more interconnected and, in his book, which gives a comprehensive overview of the study of law, Stolker makes a strong case for more international collaboration in research and education between law schools. This is true for the study of law, but also applies to other fields of study that have been traditionally more local than global, like medicine.

Shifting focus

These three publications highlight a shifting focus in approaches to internationalisation – away from ad hoc, marginal and fragmented activities towards broader, more diverse and more integrated and transformative processes. The focus is, however, shifting slowly and more is imagined than achieved.

Although there is still a strong focus on the abroad side of internationalisation, there is an ever stronger call for attention to internationalisation of the curriculum at home. There is increasing recognition of the need for institutions to involve more, and even all, students in internationalisation.

Academic staff and their teaching teams define, control and manage the curriculum. It is therefore critical that they are engaged in the process of internationalisation of the curriculum.

Many academic staff are, however, not sure what internationalisation of the curriculum means, do not have the required skills, knowledge and attitude to internationalise their own curriculum effectively or do not think it has anything to do with them. The challenges and frustrations associated with engaging academic staff in internationalising the curriculum have been noted frequently in literature.

The complexities of the interactions between discipline communities and internationalisation of the curriculum in action as well as a number of blockers and enablers have also been explored to some extent. The number, scope and depth of studies to date are, however, limited.

The reality is that studies of internationalisation of the curriculum in higher education are scarce and academic voices are rarely heard in discussions of internationalisation.

The result is that the relationship between internationalisation, the curriculum and academic disciplines is poorly understood. While we have some partial answers to the questions raised above, we are a long way from having comprehensive answers. These three publications contribute to a better understanding.

Hans de Wit will, as of 1 September 2015, be professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Currently he is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is also a research associate at the Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. This blog builds on a foreword that Hans de Wit and Betty Leask have written for the book by Wendy Green and Craig Whitsed.