Competition or collaboration for change?

The new millennium marked a substantial shift in internationalisation of higher education, from a cooperative to a competitive paradigm, although the first signals were already apparent in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom several decades before.

Where internationalisation in continental Europe, and even the United States, was perceived as being mainly short-term study abroad as part of the home degree, increasingly the focus has shifted towards recruitment of international students for full degrees, cross-border delivery of education via franchises, articulation programmes and branch campuses.

A similar shift has taken place in the area of research where collaboration has moved towards competition for funding, publications and the most talented doctoral students and scholars.

The emergence of international rankings has become a manifestation of this competitive higher education environment. The rankings have also added new dimensions of global international profiling, positioning and branding.

In her interesting contribution to University World News of 15 April, ‘Higher education is trapped in a competition fetish’, Rajani Naidoo points to these trends: “There is a modern day magical belief that competition will provide the solution to all problems. Competition will lead to equity, enhance quality and protect us against risk. Most importantly, competition is perceived as a natural force that is independent from human agency.”

Competition for ranking places

If we look at the internationalisation of higher education, we can indeed notice that this magical belief is quite universal.

Besides the traditional strongholds – the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and France and their top universities – more and more national governments and university leaders focus their policies on the belief that they can recruit talented international students from the same countries – China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and so on – as those who are leading the pack.

They also believe they can lure top scholars to their country and institution, publish in top international journals and become part of the internationally top-ranked world-class higher education institutions and systems.

A good example is the 5-100 programme in Russia. To accomplish this, governments invest millions of dollars in excellence initiatives; universities develop international, English-taught degree programmes; they look carefully at the key indicators of the rankings and try to adhere to them; and they send recruiters around the world to spot students and scholars.

While the existing leading institutions already compete intensely to stay at the top –and all analysis indicates that it is much easier to stay there than to get to the top –emerging societies think they have no other solution than trying to get there too, despite the very high price and the very unlikely chance of success.

What is striking is that to do so they undertake actions that undermine their own chances of success. For instance, many of the emerging countries set up expensive scholarship schemes as they realise that they need a substantial critical base of well-educated scholars to be able to compete. But as their main selection criteria, they require that the scholarships can only be used for study at the top 50 or 100 ranked institutions globally.

In other words, they strengthen the position of those top-ranked universities even more and the brightest of the students they send will not return, but stay at those top-ranked institutions.

Another example is the fact that many of these governments undertake research collaboration with the top 100 universities on unequal terms that provides another form of support for the elite universities. And they co-author research articles with scholars from top-ranked universities to increase their own research impact rating, but forget that this strengthens the impact of the competition as well.

In the words of Naidoo: “It is precisely the decades of competition policies that have been unthinkingly deployed that have the potential to drive down quality and drive up inequality. The invisible hand of competition provides the means by which no-one is responsible for negative effects apart from the victims themselves.”

Is this avoidable? Yes, as Naidoo states: “There is no NO alternative.” But it is surprising how difficult it is to get national and institutional leaders to really change.

Of course, they pay lip service to alternative approaches, such as internationalisation at home and global citizenship. The Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education of the International Association of Universities is full of these politically correct answers. But in the end quantitative successes and rankings prevail.

Alternative ideas and actions are definitely emerging, like collaborative online international learning, joint and double degrees and internationalised curricula, but such innovations are still rare and marginal.

One wonders if the majority of higher education leaders are really interested in true innovation, change and social responsibility or if they are only focused on the league tables.

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