Changing the mindset in internationalisation research

Higher education internationalisation research and debates have, for decades, been dominated by organisations and individuals from the developed world, lacking inclusivity and genuine collaboration. This has mainly been due to the power imbalances and dominance of the global North in all spheres of life, including higher education. In addition, the passivity from many parts of the global South has added to its lack of representation and voices in this space.

In order to develop an inclusive and truly international engagement in the higher education internationalisation arena, the existing paradigms, research approaches and practices need to be reconsidered.

Instead of the powerful and ‘mainstream’ organisations and experts co-opting the voices from the global South to make their research and agendas look more ‘inclusive’, real collaboration between equals is needed. Such collaboration will not happen if the higher education internationalisation researchers and practitioners from the global South remain passive and do not engage more actively in research, analysis and knowledge production in the field.

In addition, the active voices from the South, many of whom were for far too long ignored and excluded from the mainstream debates on internationalisation should no longer be called the ‘new’ or ‘emerging’ voices but ‘previously unheard’ voices – as many of them have been there all along, but have been ignored or sidelined in the mainstream debates and publications.

The existing theories and approaches, developed in the global North, are in most cases the primary references for all. Higher education institutions in the global South often tend to copy the approaches, strategies and frameworks developed and used in the global North. The problem with this is that what works for one setting will not necessarily work in another setting.

In anything we do – in any field of study or work – context is important. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to anything. The ‘copy and paste’ approach needs to be replaced by practices and approaches developed for specific settings and informed by sound research.

Rethinking the research focus

The research focus in internationalisation needs urgent rethinking. For years, the focus of research and debates has been student and staff mobility, student recruitment, study abroad, internationalisation at home, internationalisation of the curriculum, joint degrees, partnerships and other topics.

While these topics are important, Leonard Engel, executive director of the European Association for International Education, points out that they are often addressed "as if they are entities in their own right" and not "in the context of the world in which we live".

Where is higher education internationalisation research in relation to global challenges such as conflict, poverty, environment, climate change, inequality, migration, xenophobia, political and other kinds of oppression and post-conflict reconstruction?

What is the role and responsibility of academia and internationalisation in peace-building, development and social justice around the world? Why are these issues not an integral part of our work, debates, research and practices?

The complex and constantly changing world requires from higher education institutions the development of graduates who possess critical thinking skills and global competencies. The world needs graduates who can understand and engage with the environmental, social, economic, political and other challenges of today and tomorrow.

We propose that future research in the higher education internationalisation field follows the critical social research approach, which questions how institutions, policies and frameworks are formulated and implemented in practice.

This approach does not accept existing frameworks, paradigms, power structures, world orders and ways of thinking as given; instead, it challenges them in order to highlight and transform inequalities and injustices and thereby improve future paradigms and practices. Engaging in critical social research could lead to the creation of a new body of knowledge that would help us in the development of the above-described globally competent graduates.

In terms of research collaboration, higher education internationalisation researchers and practitioners need to think critically about a number of issues related to research paradigms, approaches and practices.

Some of the key questions to consider are: What kind of collaboration and engagement in research do we need in order to develop an inclusive and representative international dialogue where all are given space, heard and represented? How do we engage in collaboration that is grounded in respect?

Global research commons

An inclusive and truly international dialogue in the higher education internationalisation arena can be developed through the establishment of interlinked global research commons to act as vehicles for the enhancement of research capacity and collaboration around the world.

The higher education internationalisation field needs high-quality critical research and analysis from all parts of the globe in order to develop a better understanding among diverse peoples and bring about positive change in the world.

There will be many challenges along the way – such as funding and attitude change – but these can be overcome if the interest and will to engage and collaborate are there.

We also need to be careful that the proposed research commons do not become – or be perceived as – an elitist project for the chosen few. Research commons need to be inclusive and open to all - those with the capacity to engage as well as those who require support to build capacity to be on par with others. Research commons can be places where required capacity building takes place.

Grounding research commons in the global commons concept would provide the necessary spaces for collaboration in higher education internationalisation research and debates. Dr Nico Jooste wrote about the global commons concept
in relation to higher education partnerships, but the same concept can be applied to research collaboration.

Participants in the global research commons would need to accept rules that guide the behaviour within the commons. Everyone would need to recognise complex interdependent relations and resist a paternalistic mindset.

Finally, to prevent a new form of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ within the higher education internationalisation space, global research commons would need to be spaces where the collaborators see themselves as equals who are willing to share, innovate and work towards the common good of those ‘in the commons’ as well as their broader communities.

Power dynamics would need to be neutralised in order to lift all through consensus-seeking engagement. This will require a shift in attitudes from many. However, if we are to move forward and engage in an inclusive and truly international research and dialogue where all are represented, we do not have an alternative.

Dr Nico Jooste is the senior director of the Office for International Education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, or NMMU, in South Africa and director of NMMU’s Research Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World. He is also the president of the International Education Association of South Africa, or IEASA. Dr Savo Heleta is the manager of internationalisation at home and research at NMMU’s Office for International Education and a researcher at NMMU’s Research Unit for Higher Education Internationalisation in the Developing World, South Africa.