Internationalisation: variations and vagaries

Over the past three decades, there’s been growing awareness of the importance of internationalisation at all levels – and its myriad accompanying factors such as, for instance, programmes and policies, funding and stakeholder involvement, cross-border linkages and collaboration.

European programmes for research and education, specifically the Erasmus programme but also others like the Marie Curie Fellowships, have driven a broader approach to internationalisation in higher education right across Europe, viewed as an example for institutions, nations and regions in other parts of the world.

An eye-opening study released recently entitled Internationalisation of Higher Education requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, is one of the most significant to emerge on internationalisation.

Compiled by the International Association of Universities and 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, it unpacks trends and strategies at European, national and institutional level, and also examines internationalisation strategies in higher education elsewhere.

The authors said while Europe is seen worldwide as the best-practice case for internationalisation, “there is increased competition from emerging economies and developing countries, but also opportunities for more collaboration as they become stronger actors in the higher education field”.

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

In a separate, but linked, feature article in this issue, University World News highlighted the European countries’ progress, approaches and strategies regarding internationalisation. In this feature, we focus on the seven countries outside Europe that were part of the study.


In Australia higher education institutions have been actively engaged in internationalisation for 50 years. The focus has been on recruiting international students, teaching and support but there’s also been major engagement by researchers.

“Australian universities are among the most internationalised in the world,” said the study’s authors. However, complex policy changes and systemic failures saw international student applications drop between 2010 and 2012 with international enrolments declining by almost one-fifth. International education’s value as an export dropped from $19.1 billion in 2009-10 to $14.1 billion in 2012-13.

These trends are reversing, with the government setting up units like Australian Education International to coordinate international education matters. The Australia Awards, an international scholarship programme, promotes knowledge, education links and ties between Australia and other countries, especially those within the region, while the New Colombo Plan promotes knowledge of the Asia-Pacific region by supporting Australian undergraduate study, internships, mentorships, work placements and research: A$100 million over five years has been committed to this.

In 2013, international students represented 25% of students in Australian HE institutions and 30% of all postgraduate research students. With more than half a million international students in 2013, Australia ranked third among English-speaking study destinations, after the US and Britain. It attracts more than 6% of the world’s globally mobile students.


In the USA, funding for international education is generous, and key programmes also provide back-up (such as the Fulbright and Fulbright-Hayes programmes): in 2013, general support for international education was a hefty US$375 million from the state department and US$75 million from the education department.

The US$250 billion federal student financial aid programme funds can be used for study abroad and the US Agency for International Development’s budget of US$1.58 billion (2012) provided international research opportunities.


In Canada, the HE system is recognised for excellence at home and abroad. The country is involved in numerous multilateral organisations, and partnerships include the OECD and UNESCO.

The EU and Canada have a longstanding education relationship, for example, the EU-Canada Programme for Co-operation in Higher Education, Training and Youth ran from 2006 to 2013 and supported various EU and Canadian post-secondary institutions in running joint study programmes, including faculty exchange and internships.

Canada’s International Education Strategy launched in 2014 marked a milestone and some crucial objectives: to double international student numbers to 450,000 by 2022 and increase the numbers of those choosing to remain in Canada as permanent residents after graduation.


Japan, with 128 million people, is seeing student numbers declining. Last year, universities enrolled 2,855,000 students, recruiting 14,000 fewer students than the previous year.

In the 1980s the government launched a policy to boost international student numbers from 10,000 to 100,000 by 2000. Institutions got funds to develop international student services, accommodation services, and Japanese language training.

A new fund in 2005 saw a budget of JPY10-40 million (US$81,700-326,700) per institution annually to 20 selected universities for five years for internationalisation.

In 2013 international students numbered 135,519, or 4.7% of the overall college student population. These soared to 141,774 in 2010 but have since declined, despite a “300,000 international student” initiative in 2009. The reason for this decline may be linked to the Japanese earthquake in 2011 and the (mis)perceptions that Japan is radiation-contaminated.


In Malaysia, the internationalisation of HE is a major thrust of the country’s national higher education policy. Private higher education particularly has seen enormous growth over the past 10 years: there are 20 public universities, 73 private universities and 403 private colleges.

The numbers of Malaysians pursuing HE abroad has steadily risen – more than doubling between 2002 and 2011, with most students enrolling in HEIs in places like Australia, UK, the USA, New Zealand and even Taiwan and Singapore.

Malaysia’s plan to become a highly developed country by 2020 has stimulated a boost in investment in human capital and policies, and a call for the private sector to deliver HE services via twinning programmes between Malaysian colleges and foreign universities.

Education services are classified as one of the 12 National Key Economic Areas under the Economic Transformation Programme, bringing in some MYR27 billion (US$6.5 billion) – or 4% of Malaysia’s Gross National Income in 2009.

South Africa

In South Africa, internationalisation isn’t flourishing, with apartheid and the pre-1994 boycotts and isolation policies effectively blocking this. However, despite the government’s lack of interest, progress has been made – mainly through HE institutions developing the process themselves, and through efforts of the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA. Without the IEASA leadership since its establishment in 1997, the concept of internationalisation of higher education would never have been implanted.

IEASA provides guidance to a system with no national policy or strategy. Yet universities manage to include some form of internationalisation in their planning, seeing it as a means to enhance research and as a source of knowledge creation.

International students have been accepted in the HE system since inception, numbers rising dramatically since 1994: from 7,031 contact students to 40,213 in 2013. This represents 7% of the total student population.

Internationalisation is an evolving situation, and the education department has commissioned researchers to produce guidelines for the development of strategy to further guide internationalisation.


In Colombia most institutions are privately funded and there are massive variations in the educational or research goals of establishments. The government plays a minor role in higher education so internationalisation depends mainly on the capacities and goals of institutions themselves.

Only after the Declaration of the Regional Conference on Higher Education in Cartagena in 2008 did Colombia’s education ministry establish a committee for the internationalisation of higher education.

Partially bridging academic divides are partnerships with HEIs in Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Britain. Colombia’s participation in programmes like Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 has increased and there have also been opportunities for co-operation with agencies supporting academic exchange.