The nationalisation of internationalisation

The 2015 annual conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators took place in Boston, USA, on 24-29 May. A record number of over 11,000 participants demonstrated the increasing importance of international education, not only in the United States but also in the rest of the world since the number of international participants from over 100 countries was also at a record high.

The conference confirmed NAFSA’s traditional leading position as the premier international education conference in the world, followed at a considerable distance by the European Association for International Education, or EAIE.

Because of NAFSA’s important role in the rapidly changing world of international higher education, it is worth reflecting on what this conference means. These comments reflect some of our conference observations.

In his daily blog, Higher Education Strategy Associates’ One Thought to Start Your Day, higher education consultant Alex Usher, also a conference participant, remarked that “if you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalisation”, it is worth attending a NAFSA conference at least once. Like us, he refers in particular to the education fair.

While the conference programme was full of workshops and sessions concerning the traditional focus of the field on study abroad and international student services, the exhibit and an increasing number of workshops and sessions emphasised the increased commercialisation that characterises international higher education today.

Recruitment agents, information technology services, insurance companies, marketing companies, security risk management, telecommunications, testing services, travel companies, visa expediters, language learning programmes, credential evaluators – you name it – occupied a large section of the enormous exhibit hall. Of course, they were there before, but not in the numbers they are now.

Higher education industry

Where in the past we would have had some hesitation to follow our British and Australian colleagues in calling international education an ‘industry’, not calling it that now would ignore the current realities.

The commercial aspects of the international higher education ‘industry’ have come to dominate NAFSA, and also to a certain extent the EAIE conferences. The trend is not new – only magnified. It is also possible that NAFSA itself, through its increasingly commercialised approach and high fees, is contributing significantly to current trends.

Our modest calculation is that perhaps US$35 million to US$40 million was spent at this conference if one includes registration, accommodation, other individual expenses, exhibit fees, receptions, etc. This is an enormous amount of money.

What struck us most, however, was the increased grouping of higher education institutions and systems under national flags in the exhibit hall. The word ‘booth’ would not do justice to the sometimes enormous landscapes in which countries represent themselves.

We counted at least 30 of them, some small and modest like Costa Rica, others enormous like Japan, Russia and Turkey. Who paid for these national exhibits? What is the rationale behind them? Why is their number increasing so rapidly?

Why are certain regions – Asia, Europe, Latin America – so clearly present while Africa is not there at all? Why are BRIC countries like Russia, Brazil and China there, while India is completely absent?

We don’t have definite answers to all these questions. It would be worth doing a doctoral thesis on what one might call the increasing nationalisation of internationalisation.

Some speculation may be relevant. Many of these national exhibits seem to be funded either by education ministries, but interestingly enough these are more likely to be ministries and national agencies responsible for trade and commerce or even national tourism authorities.

They do not have a direct interest in enhancing international cooperation and exchange, the primary interest of the universities that are represented. Their interest is to promote the country as a study destination, as a knowledge economy or just to profile the country as such – and in some cases to promote commercial interests.

International rankings may also play a role. The Russian national pavilion was sponsored by the government-funded 5-100 project – the aim of which is to assist Russian universities to enter the top 100 positions in the rankings by 2020.

We also saw a trend for not wanting to be excluded and for copying others. Colombia and Mexico have a national presence at the conference so Argentina cannot stay away, or it will be considered a failure on the international stage.

Some countries and their universities cannot afford to come or feel they have not enough to promote, Africa being a clear example (on a positive note it has to be applauded that NAFSA invited several participants from African universities to the conference and offered to pay their costs).

There are countries that do not promote the whole university sector but only the public universities as their presence is down to public funds (and in the case of Costa Rica, interestingly enough, it was the private ones in evidence and two of the three public universities were not represented, although they were present at the NAFSA conference).

And there are universities which do not want to participate in their national exhibit but have their own booth, as they find themselves unique or interesting enough to avoid being overshadowed by their sister universities in a group exhibit.

Indian absence

India is perhaps the most significant country to not be represented. This says something about the state of internationalisation in India, which is still predominantly a sending country and not promoting itself as a study destination. But maybe that is not so stupid. A big exhibit combined with material, staff etc probably costs around US$200,000 to US$250,000. Does such an investment pay off?

At the same time we saw the advantages of these collective national exhibits for the universities. National sponsorship, sharing of costs and a mixture of national and institutional profiling works well for them. And as the lively interactions in the exhibits show, a lot of contacts are reconfirmed, made and updated.

However, we worry about the nationalisation of internationalisation because it may detract from what is actually central to internationalisation – practical links between universities for the benefit of students and to promote collaborative international research.

What are largely being lost in the new world of commercialised internationalisation of higher education are traditional values. We are perhaps nostalgic for a bygone age – but we believe the educational values of internationalisation in a globalised world are central and are being lost as the field is increasingly influenced by a desire to earn income from internationalisation.

Agencies that essentially aid these income-generating activities – such as some government agencies, agents and recruiters and many others – are taking the field in a different direction. For associations like NAFSA and EAIE the challenge will be to find the right balance and not let themselves be driven too far in the direction of an education industry.

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 the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands. 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. Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA.