Confronting global challenges

Internationalisation has become a strategic agenda point both at (inter)national and institutional levels in higher education all around the world. We seem to forget, though, that it is a relatively new phenomenon and, as a concept, it is one that is both broad and varied.

The recent study of the European Parliament on Internationalisation of Higher Education, for which I was the project leader, provides ample evidence of the rapid and diverse ways in which internationalisation has manifested itself in different parts of the world. The picture arising from this study and other recent publications is rather optimistic. But does the current global environment, full of conflicts, tensions and challenges, suggest such a glowing picture is a possibility?

The internationalisation of higher education is driven by a dynamic and constantly evolving combination of political, economic, socio-cultural and academic factors. These take on different forms and dimensions in different regions and countries, and in different institutions and their programmes.

In other words: there is no one model that fits all. Regional and national contexts are varied and constantly evolving, and the same is true within the institutions themselves. In the current challenging global political, social and economic climate, it is important to look at the way internationalisation is evolving.

Still a long way to go

The rhetoric speaks of more comprehensive and strategic policies for internationalisation, but in reality there is still a long way to go in most cases. Even in Europe, seen around the world as a best practice case for internationalisation, there is still much to be done, and there is uneven development across the different countries, with significant challenges in Southern and, in particular, Central and Eastern Europe. The current refugee crisis and its manifestations in higher education is a clear example of the complexity of internationalisation.

The Trends 2015 report of the European University Association, or EUA, confirms a picture that already came out of two previous surveys on internationalisation in Europe and the world, one by the International Association of Universities, or IAU, and the other by the European Association for International Education, or EAIE.

These surveys demonstrate that leaders in higher education and practitioners in international education perceive an improvement in the quality of teaching and learning and preparing students to live and work in a globalised world as the key benefits and reasons for pursuing internationalisation.

They view regional or national-level policy as a key external driver and influencer of institutional policy on internationalisation; and note that increasing international (and especially outbound) student mobility is a key policy focus in institutional internationalisation policies.

At the same time these three studies express concerns about the current political, social and economic climate for higher education and its implications for the international dimension.

The studies also indicate that international student mobility, in many cases in combination with forms of international research collaboration and international strategic partnerships, is still the dominant form of internationalisation.

That, in my view, is one of the main challenges for the future. Internationalisation is still perceived as primarily about the mobility of students, scholars and programmes, and study abroad, partnerships and research drive that mobility agenda.

As a consequence, internationalisation is elitist, as it only concentrates on a small number of qualified and motivated students and scholars who also have the means to be mobile. It does not address the very large group of students and scholars who are not mobile and who do not recognise the importance of global, international and intercultural skills, but who, in this global knowledge society, also need those skills to live and work internationally.

A scenario for the future

A Delphi Panel exercise among key experts in international higher education around the world confirmed the complex picture of internationalisation today and, as part of the European Parliament study mentioned above, painted a scenario for the future of the internationalisation of higher education in Europe.

This scenario sees internationalisation of higher education as a continually evolving response to globalisation, driven by a dynamic range of reasons and a growing number of stakeholders. While it expects mobility and cross-border delivery to continue to grow, it calls for a stronger focus on the curriculum and on learning outcomes to ensure internationalisation for all, and not just for the mobile few.

It identifies partnerships and alliances in varying forms as becoming increasingly important for both education and research. It envisages that a higher education can emerge whose graduates will be able to contribute meaningfully as global citizens and global professionals.

The future of internationalisation

Based on the Delphi Panel exercise, the European Parliament study has extended Jane Knight’s commonly accepted working definition of internationalisation to encompass "the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society".

This definition reflects an increased awareness that internationalisation has to become more inclusive and less elitist by focusing more on the curriculum and learning outcomes than on mobility.

The ‘abroad’ component (mobility) needs to become an integral part of the internationalised curriculum to ensure internationalisation for all, not only the mobile minority. It re-emphasises that internationalisation is not a goal in itself, but a means to enhance quality education, and that the justification for it is not solely an economic one.

Most national strategies, including in Europe, are still predominantly focused on mobility, short-term and-or long-term economic gains, recruitment and-or training of talented students and scholars and international reputation and visibility.

This implies that far greater efforts are still needed to incorporate these approaches into more comprehensive strategies in which internationalisation of the curriculum and learning outcomes, as a means to enhance the quality of education and research, receive more attention.

Optimism in a period of global challenges?

The picture arising from the European Parliament study and the several surveys and other documents mentioned above is rather optimistic. Also, the document International Trends in Higher Education 2015 by the University of Oxford underlines this positive view of the future of internationalisation. And Angel Calderon in his commentary in University World News of 11 September gives an optimistic view of international higher education.

But we cannot ignore the fact that internationalisation of higher education is being challenged by increasingly profound social, economic and cultural issues, such as the financial crisis, unfavourable demographic trends, immigration and ethnic and religious tensions.

While these challenges can raise our awareness of the importance of internationalisation in developing a meaningful response, they are also a potential threat. That is why it is important to concentrate not only on those who are mobile and convinced of the importance of being mobile, but on all students and scholars.

There is still a long and difficult way to go to realise the optimistic view of internationalisation, but there is no alternative. The slow but increasingly positive way in which higher education is responding to the refugee crisis gives hope for the future.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: