The internationalisation imperative

When my father graduated from college, he competed for jobs against peers in his local area. When I completed my university degree, I had to stand out against other graduates from across the country. When today’s students graduate they will face a competitive landscape that is larger than ever.

Today’s graduates are competing with peers from all over the world for the jobs of tomorrow. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD, at the current rate of growth, nearly 50% of all 25-34 year olds are expected to have a college degree by 2030.

Canada and the United States will then only account for less than 10% of the anticipated 300 million degree holders worldwide. For students in these two countries that means their global peers will soon become their competitors and colleagues.

For colleges and universities in these two countries – and around the world – it signals an imperative to prepare students to be able to collaborate and compete in a global workforce.

The undeniable solution to this looming challenge is institutional internationalisation. Introducing students to global perspectives and opening campus doors to international students to ensure classrooms and lecture theatres reflect the global workforce is critical.

While it is laudable to imagine these students will leave their home countries to gain a global perspective and the skills employers seek while studying abroad, few take advantage of those opportunities. According to the Open Doors Report, just 1.5% of students from the United States, and roughly 2% of Canadian students, studied abroad last year.

The responsibility of universities

It becomes incumbent then on universities to undertake international initiatives to prepare students for success in a global marketplace. Such internationalisation efforts are often framed as a competitive necessity – with shrinking budgets the allure of international students, and the non-resident tuition fees they bring, can be quite appealing.

This is a compelling argument if universities were driven only by profit. But, given that universities are driven by the mission to educate and prepare students for the future, the real imperative for internationalisation lies not in the need for growth, but instead in the need to create a classroom that is more reflective of the conference room table these students are likely to find themselves sitting at five to 10 years after graduation.

In the lifespan of today’s college students, the world's economies have developed ever-closer links in trade, investment and production. That impact of globalisation permeates their career aspirations.

According to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, 71% of millennials say they want and expect an overseas assignment during their career. Employers share these same visions; 64% of employers believe international experience is an important factor when recruiting staff. Even more compelling – 92% of employers are seeking personality traits gained from studying abroad.

At a minimum, the jobs of tomorrow will require greater sensitivity to individual differences and the ability to relate to people from different cultural backgrounds.

If the goal of the university is to prepare all students for life post-graduation, then every campus should be providing more opportunities for international exposure to their domestic students, by expanding and broadening the diversity of perspectives in their classrooms that challenge and encourage insight into and understanding about the world outside their nation’s borders.

The impact of internationalisation efforts also reaches beyond job preparation, helping to cultivate global citizens. The level of interdependence in the world can be seen in news events, in entertainment, in sports, in natural resource shortages, among others.

As the connections in the world grow beyond the characteristics traditionally associated with globalisation, a cross-cultural perspective is needed to fully contribute to our interconnected society.

Internationalisation is key

The good news is there is already high demand internationally among students to study outside of their home countries. According to the most recent Open Doors Report, there were 974,926 international students studying in the US in the 2014-15 university year.

There are fewer in Canada – 268,659 international students in the 2012-13 university year (the latest data available) – but the number has been growing year on year.

Yet, those international students are densely concentrated at only a handful of institutions. For example, in the United States, only 5% of institutions host nearly 70% of international students. And, while the United States has the largest number of top 400 universities in the world, among English-speaking countries it has the lowest proportion of international students relative to the total student population – just over 4%.

The lack of distribution of international students in the US higher education system and institutions results in a deficit of experience for domestic students. Institutions that do not initiate internationalisation efforts put themselves at a disadvantage by not actively facilitating collaboration and networking between domestic and international students.

Often, when international students come to the United States for a world-class education, many stay to innovate, build and lead industries. Look no further than Elon Musk, whose businesses have contributed to space exploration, the spread of solar power and electric cars, and Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. Their collegiate peers certainly benefited from the exposure to innovative entrepreneurship.

As the mission of higher education to prepare students for the future grows increasingly more complex, institutions must continue to look for effective ways to adapt.

Universities cannot know what jobs may be available, or what skills students may need 10, or even five, years down the road. But, the trend of borderless economies will continue. If higher education institutions are going to keep pace and stay relevant, every classroom needs to reflect this new global reality.

David Stremba is the executive vice-president of business development for Navitas. Stremba’s career includes over a decade of experience within the international education sector including on-the-ground experience in the top three destination markets for international students, the USA, UK and Australia.