School internationalisation: Whose opportunity?

Until recently internationalisation has been primarily identified with higher education, even though there is a general recognition that the earlier in life children have an international experience and environment the more likely they will be international in their further studies and career.

There are international baccalaureate programmes, international schools and bilingual schools all over the world. However, the perception is that they cater mainly to a small number of kids of the elite and expats.

Recently, though, there are an increasing number of international activities and even strategies at the primary and secondary level of education as well as in vocational education. The number of Chinese families who send their kids to schools abroad is booming.

University World News reported that the Victoria government in Australia sees school education as a new recruiting ground for foreign students to secure higher education enrolments, both by attracting them to Australia to be part of its own school system and by promoting the Victorian Certificate of Education abroad.

Chinese families even send their kids to international kindergarten at a price of US$16,000 a year.

Is this trend the exclusive territory of private education and the rich elite who can afford the investment in international education at all levels? At first glance this does seem to be the case, but state schools are also developing international initiatives. Why is this happening, what are some of its manifestations and what are the consequences for higher education?

The value of an international education

In Europe, this trend manifests itself in the development of more bilingual schools and programmes and more attention for exchanges and virtual cooperation. In the US and other English-speaking countries it manifests itself in an increase in the number of international students in schools. And in the developing world there is an increase in international schools and bilingual and international baccalaureate programmes as well as in outward mobility.

It is a manifestation of the importance that parents place on quality education in an international context, on global citizenship and languages, in particular, but not exclusively, English.

International education has become the main instrument for preparing your children for a world in which global employability and citizenship are seen as essential. If this used to be something that was only available and of interest to a small rich elite, the middle classes, both in the developed and the developing world, are fast discovering its importance.

The opportunity for higher education, in the argument of the Victoria government, is that it will stimulate international recruitment into universities. The challenge for higher education is that a gap might emerge when these kids enter local higher education where internationalisation is still mainly mobility driven for a small elite of students and mainly at graduate level and not international in content and learning outcomes.

So, these internationally educated children might end up with a much more national education if the universities are not offering adequate international solutions and curricula to them and this will end up with them going abroad again if they can afford it.

The Netherlands

The boom in international programmes at secondary school level has been an important driver for and reason for the success of the university colleges in the Netherlands, the international liberal arts colleges that several universities have established over the past 15 years. Their Dutch students come mainly from bilingual schools, international schools and international baccalaureate programmes.

This is one example of the increasing awareness that there needs to be a relationship between the growing interest in international activities and programmes at the primary and secondary level and the internationalisation in higher education.

The fact that the European Commission has brought its programmes for the different levels together in one programme, Erasmus+, is another example. The other is the merger in the Netherlands of the organisation responsible for internationalisation of higher education, Nuffic, with the organisation that is facilitating and stimulating international cooperation in primary, secondary and adult education, European Platform, to form one organisation, EP-Nuffic.

The idea behind this merger was not only to rationalise operations but also to stimulate more alignment between the different education levels.

The number of international programmes in primary and secondary education in the developed world is increasing and a positive trend is that this is no longer the exclusive territory of private schools. For instance, there are now apparently more international baccalaureate programmes in public schools in the United States than in private ones.

Developing world

But in the developing world one can also see an increased interest in internationalising primary and secondary education. The focus is not on mobility but on a curriculum with a global focus, language learning, virtual exchange and confrontation with international and intercultural practice, such as cultural activities and visits to international companies.

In these countries this seems to still be primarily the privilege of the old elite and the upcoming new rich, and is catered for primarily by private schools. But there are some positive signs that the public sector in these countries is also becoming aware of the importance of a more international high school curriculum.

In Ecuador, the government has apparently announced the establishment of 900 public international baccalaureate programmes. In Mexico, at least four public universities have created international baccalaureate programmes as part of their high school programmes.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting the director of one of the latter, Dr Odorico Mora Carreón, who runs such a programme at the high school ‘5 de Mayo’ of the Autonomous University of Puebla, or BUAP. With enthusiasm and motivation he explained to me how students and teachers are working intensively together and how successful the results are.

His first generation of graduates is not only going into the local university but also to some of the top elite private universities in the country, which provide them with scholarships because of their performance.

The public higher education system is discovering that it needs to cultivate its international talent early in the education process and stimulate them to develop those talents further. Those who are in the public system do not have the means to go to private schools and private universities. In the traditional public system they are insufficiently stimulated and the international baccalaureate offers them new opportunities. So international programmes at the secondary level are important, also to address the problems of teaching foreign languages in the public system.

The challenge that BUAP and other universities around the world face, though, is that those talents may get lost in the public higher education system. They have to continue supporting them by creating international curricula, providing them with international classrooms and supporting them with scholarships for study abroad.

Higher education has to realise that internationalisation starts not only at the university but before that and they should support and collaborate with the other levels of education, take advantage of this development and build their own strategy on it.

As long as internationalisation is primarily identified with mobility in higher education and not with teaching and learning and international learning outcomes at all levels, we will miss out on the opportunity to give students from less privileged backgrounds access to international study.

Hans de Wit is professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. He is a research associate at the Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, or NMMU, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. E-mail: