Penetrating insights into internationalisation progress

Since the 1980s and the first initiatives for joint study development in Europe, internationalisation has broadened, breaking down borders and globalising campuses and students worldwide.

While approaches and progress differ between countries, it’s apparent there’s been dramatic growth and movement in this area.

The recent release of the study Internationalisation of Higher Education commissioned by the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, provides penetrating insight into trends, strategies and challenges in internationalisation across 17 countries.

Written by Hans de Wit and Fiona Hunter of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation; Laura Howard of the European Association for International Education; and Eva Egron-Polak of the International Association of Universities, the report reveals that although there’s been much development, there is still scope for improvement.

While the role of the EU and the Bologna Process in developing the internationalisation of higher education, or HE, in Europe is undeniable, it is not the only model and Europe could learn from elsewhere.

For that reason, the study focuses not just on 10 European countries – Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain and the UK – but also seven countries outside Europe – Australia, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Malaysia, South Africa and the USA.

This feature focuses on the European countries, each with its own policies on internationalisation.


Finland joined the European Community in 1995. Higher education here already meets many European internationalisation targets, including the student mobility goal of 20% set out in the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, Leuven Communiqué.

The government offers institutions financial incentives for increased mobility initiatives, including additional funding for Erasmus but also via results-based funding. In the 1990s, Finland adopted the basic tenets of the Bologna Process and institutions introduced the two-tier degree structure, the European Credit Transfer System and other European-style grading scales.

A drawback is that internationalisation of research is seen as separate from education, and there have been no efforts to marry the two. The Academy of Finland gives policy guidelines for the internationalisation of research but a chasm yawns between these and internationalisation in general.


France has boastworthy credentials: the third most popular destination for international students (behind America and Britain), ranked third for the number of projects selected by the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development – the EU’s main funding instrument for research – and sixth for scientific publications. The international collaboration level in scientific publications is one of the highest in the world.

It’s the second EU country for outgoing mobility (around 26,000 students, slightly less than Spain and more than Germany) and also the leading country for outgoing mobility for internships.

In HE and research, emphasis is on degree mobility (how to attract students, young researchers, staff and improve the hosting process), and the internationalisation of curricula and research in partnership with industry.

The country works hard at enhancing national policy to improve the reception of international students and staff, and encourage outgoing mobility through a stronger national agency for promotion and mobility (Campus France). It wants to attract students and young researchers to specific curricula at masters and doctoral levels from countries with strong economic development, particularly emerging and southern hemisphere countries.

France has created French schools abroad, and autonomous French-speaking universities – Galatasaray University (Istanbul) and Université Française d’Egypte – while business offers internship opportunities or develops joint laboratories with foreign universities.


In Poland, in contrast, few higher education institutions, or HEIs, have embraced internationalisation. This is blamed on inadequate institutional management, deficiencies in the international exposure of academics and underinvestment and lack of financing schemes, and it’s seen as a costly, clumsy process.

Inbound-outbound student and academic staff numbers are significant, however: an 11-fold increase in outgoings between 1998 and 2013 (from 1,426 to 16,221) and 48 times more incomings (up from 220 to 10,772).

Simultaneously, the number of HEIs with an Erasmus Charter increased more than seven-fold. Polish HEIs hosted more than 42,000 short-term international students from Spain, Turkey, Germany, Portugal and France, and staff mobility increased within the European mobility programmes. The number of Poles who went teaching abroad was 10 times greater than in 1998 and HEIs received six times more international staff than in 1998.

The HE sector has managed for years without a national strategy for internationalisation, and government gives institutions little guidance or support – unlike Germany, where there is significant public and-or private support for HE and internationalisation.


There has been a steady increase in German students engaging in degree-related mobility - from 34,000 in 1991 to 133,800 by 2011. The German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, in its Strategy 2020, wants to boost foreign student numbers in Germany to 350,000 and the number of local students going abroad to 50% within six years.

It’s one of the most attractive countries for establishing exchanges, collaborative degree programmes and research partnerships.

Of the world’s 4.5 million globally mobile students today, Europe attracts 45%, and Germany 6% of the global total, making it the fifth most popular host country worldwide. It sends about 33% of its HE students abroad annually.

Backing the drive to improve HE representation abroad are the German Council of Science and Humanities, the German Rectors’ Conference, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


Neighbouring Italy is progressing more slowly. University enrolments have dropped by 20.4% in 10 years, and there’s been a decline in older students (over 23 years), so Italy won’t reach the European 2020 objective of 40% of graduates in the 30-34 year-old age group.

However, the Erasmus programme has been the cornerstone of internationalisation here. Italy was one of four signatories of the Sorbonne Declaration and led the Bologna Process, hosting the first conference in 1999 and acting uncharacteristically as a first mover in implementing the Bologna reforms.

New measures were also introduced to boost mobility and internationalisation of the curriculum and research, embedded in legislation for updating the HE system and in each round of the three-year planning cycles for university development. National policies are aligned with European policies and objectives (Europe 2020, Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020) and the national quality assurance agency has been developed according to European standards of best practice.

Italian universities, although not highly ranked, are aligning with international practices by teaching in English, recruiting international staff and students and enhancing their international research profiles.


In Spanish universities, few programmes are offered in English, and there’s little English language proficiency in the general population and among older academics.

Erasmus has played an important role in student mobility. In 2012-2013, more students left the country on Erasmus exchanges and placements (39,249) than any other country. Spain also hosted the largest number of incoming Erasmus exchange students throughout Europe in 2012-2013 – 40,202 in total.

With years of erratic government funding and leadership, Spain’s HE sector has seen various programmes come and go, including the government’s Programme for Inter-university Cooperation and Scientific Research. Noteworthy was the Universidades, a public foundation to promote Spain to international students and scholars, and the government’s Estrategia Universidad 2015, a blueprint ‘to improve the university system’.

These initiatives dwindled with budget cuts in 2011, and new national strategy shows a reliance on funding through European Commission programmes for internationalisation developments.


Norwegian HEIs are mainly state-owned and government funded. The internationalisation of HE has been a necessity: in 1989, 5,144 foreign students were enrolled at HEIs, and in 2002, that rose more than 10,000, a rate of increase surpassing that of the general student population.

‘Quality’ is the main reason HEIs implement internationalisation policies, motivations being international excellence, with increased employability of candidates, growing knowledge production, and being at the forefront of research and opportunities to recruit talent.

Financial reward is the carrot. Incoming foreign student numbers influence the state’s annual budget to institutions, like accredited publishing and credits or study points accrued by students taking exams or graduating. There is also emphasis on mobility, internationalisation at home, English-taught courses, institutional cooperation and joint degrees.

The Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund is central to the development of HE in general and internationalisation in particular – established to promote studies abroad.

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, with its high quality higher education and English language instruction, there’s been huge student mobility since the mid-1980s, thanks to Erasmus, Tempus and other programmes.

In 2012, HEIs offered more than 1,700 educational (English instruction) programmes, including 254 bachelors programmes, 1,151 masters programmes and 109 PhD programmes.

The country has a public-funded binary system of research–intensive universities and professionally-focused universities of applied sciences, with about 700,000 students.

Despite the highest proportion of English language instruction programmes in a non-English speaking country and excellent higher education, international student numbers, particularly from outside Europe, are relatively low.


In comparison, the Romanian HE system is only starting to articulate a fully-fledged national internationalisation strategy.

After years of elitist HE arrangements under communism, the HE system became more accessible – enrolment grew from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 1 million in 2008. Currently, Romania has 464,592 registered students.

There are several national policies to encourage internationalisation. Two thirds of incoming degree students are ethnic Romanians from abroad – the government offers scholarships to Romanians from Moldova, Albania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Hungary, and to other ethnic Romanians living abroad.

Romania has no strategy linking scholarships for foreign students to existing internationalisation policy. In attracting international students, universities focus on Asia, Europe (especially Italy) and Moldova. Most foreign students choose Romania because of low fees, the low cost of living compared with other European countries and easier access to programmes like medicine, pharmacy, engineering and architecture.

United Kingdom

The UK, like others in Europe, has its own challenges – having a single HE system but a devolved HE policy in its four countries (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland). Major issues, though, like quality assurance and immigration, are nationally coordinated.

The UK boasts a strong reputation for the quality of its HE system, but recent immigration policy has led to challenges for international student recruitment and dented the sector’s reputation overseas.

“As governmental funding schemes reduce, international activities are mainly financed from income generated by institutions themselves,” said the authors.

The UK has always been compliant with the Bologna Process and able to support the EU’s internationalisation agenda. Although attracting international students has been easy, recent government policy now includes other forms of internationalisation – like the 2013 policy to boost participation in outward mobility by UK students, and promote language learning in schools to support this.

British HEIs are heavily involved in European funding schemes linked to education, capacity building and sector reform (Erasmus+) and research (Horizon 2020). The UK also has the highest participation in Erasmus HE co-operation projects across the EU.

The single biggest source of funding for UK students and academic staff planning to work or study abroad comes from Erasmus.