Internationalisation as a first response for refugees

Elite. Competitive. Strategic. Economically focused. These words have been used to describe several of the current trends in higher education internationalisation. The activities that follow from emphasising these exclusionary practices inevitably create winners and losers.

The winners are countries on the brink of economic competitiveness; universities ranked in the top 100 ‘best’ by rating systems; students who study in ‘priority’ fields or who can bring resources to a host higher education institution; and scholars who have acquired marks of prestige.

The ‘losers’ are countries, higher education institutions, students and scholars who do not have these desired characteristics.

Many scholars and practitioners would agree that traditional practices associated with internationalisation – supporting individuals and institutions, building institutional connections, strengthening understanding between cultures and contributing to finding solutions to common challenges – are still relevant. Yet, the most visible internationalisation initiatives highlight economic aspects.

Higher education institutions often must make difficult choices. There have been significant changes in guaranteed state funding, greater attention to rankings and status-building initiatives, an increased number of mobile individuals and an emphasis on attracting the ‘best and brightest’.

Taken together, these and other transformations have pushed efforts towards embracing a more strategic, targeted and exclusionary internationalisation, at the expense of more open, organically derived initiatives.

But what happens when current events bring about unprecedented change and cause higher education to refocus? How does the elite, economically inclined approach to internationalisation serve thousands of recent arrivals who come with hopes of continuing study or research, but lack documentation, funding or connections?

The refugee situation in Europe calls on higher education in general, and internationalisation advocates in particular, to imagine what can be done to integrate new populations into European societies.

In the midst of the politically and culturally charged discussions surrounding the integration of new populations, what role can and should higher education play? What can higher education institutions offer as countries grapple with issues such as building walls to secure borders and the expression of anti-immigration sentiment?

Higher education, especially via its internationalisation agenda, has important responsibilities in working through these difficult topics to facilitate better understanding of cultural differences and similarities between host countries and newly arrived populations.

Host-country institutions can also directly support individuals who are or have been connected to higher education in their home countries by providing opportunities to continue with research and education.

In linking integration efforts with internationalisation, institutions can build on the dynamism that impacted higher education through courses, literature selections and research initiatives, to name a few. The present situation asks us to imagine what inclusive internationalisation looks like as institutions support the integration of this ‘new mobility’ into European higher education and society.

European intentions and initiatives

Refugees seeking access to higher education are unique in comparison to the typical international student and the standard mobility or international exchange frameworks. Internationalisation agendas can be seen as natural ‘first responders’ to the integration of refugees in higher education institutions.

The Lisbon Recognition Convention asserts that refugees and displaced individuals are to be supported in accessing higher education, and the recent European Commission communication European Agenda on Migration states: “Europe should continue to be a safe haven for those fleeing persecution as well as an attractive destination for the talent and entrepreneurship of students, researchers and workers.”

Visible in these political statements is that active support is an intention for all member states. For many institutions, though, there may be a gap between wanting to and being able to support refugee students. Like most decisions, the way that institutions respond to the ‘new mobility’ is closely connected to resources.

How do those who seek to support the integration of refugee and migrant students and researchers appeal to those concerned with an institution’s budget? Good intentions are often not enough – they need to be accompanied by persuasive ‘selling points’ to get various actors on board. Similar to many internationalisation activities, it is a question of combining cooperative and competitive rationales in imaginative ways.

As noted in a recent University World News article: “Several countries in Europe, for instance Germany, see the refugee influx as an opportunity to halt demographic decline and thus maintain a long-term sustainable social welfare system – in this case, higher education can support the 'domestic politics' dimension.”

In addition to shifting the ways that the ‘value proposition’ of integrating refugee populations is perceived, it is important to consider the language that is employed. In discussing international students as a ‘market’ or talking about relationships as ‘investments’, there is an alignment with a competitive, financialised system; the use of different terms would imply equal, inclusive relationships.

However, both points of view – internationalisation as competition and cooperation – are necessary in dealing with the diverse stakeholders. In some instances, the marketised view is valid, while in others partnerships are most important. In all cases, it is vital to reflect on the terminology, as this propels forward a particular view of, and practices associated with, internationalisation.

Activating inclusive internationalisation

In January of this year the European Commission published a list of new initiatives being undertaken by European higher education institutions and student organisations to help refugees integrate into society and academia.

To offer these new services, internationalisation infrastructures had to be reorganised, changed or had their resources reallocated. The activities – for example, enrolling refugee students without fees or documentation, organising housing and providing diversity training – can be seen as the first steps in imagining and creating an inclusive approach to internationalisation.

In one example, the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany now uses the system used for enrolling exchange students to admit refugee students. These activities show how higher education internationalisation is a ‘first responder’: mobilising resources from the bottom up to support the integration of refugees.

The next stage is thinking of how to make these activities sustainable, allowing for other bottom-up initiatives to emerge and turn successful ad hoc practices into formalised routines.

For the time being, the list of activities shows how institutions can respond creatively and nimbly, and provide opportunities to share best practices and lessons learned from failed attempts. As activities become more routine, some can be institutionalised and made part of the internationalisation framework, while others can be adapted or discarded.

Seeing the number of existing initiatives, an inclusive approach to internationalisation is already a reality in many places. These activities also show that, in some higher education contexts, internationalisation is often more directed toward exclusionary practices than the longstanding European goals of inclusion, partnership and cooperation.

The challenge now is in invigorating the inclusive aspects and moving past the idea of dualities to develop internationalisation practices that work to integrate new international populations into higher education.

Imagining a way forward

Can finding a balance between exclusive and inclusive approaches to internationalisation contribute to making higher education more available to refugees? Can rebalancing internationalisation make societies more receptive to these new populations, impacting peace and prosperity for all?

There is no single, definitive answer. But in the asking, we can encourage renewed thinking about how internationalisation can contribute to fostering more inclusive higher education institutions and societies.

Suggested action steps include:
  • • Systematically offering discussions in all courses, programmes and seminars connecting subject areas and current global events.
  • • Integrating higher education representatives with immigration offices and refugee service centres to support those who want to continue or begin study or research activities.
  • • Creating bridge programmes to higher education through language and introductory courses.
  • • Initiating and supporting new activities that use or expand on practices employed for study abroad or welcoming international students.
  • • Developing partner programmes to connect refugee students with local students.
  • • Hosting displaced and at-risk scholars, and developing guest lecturer programmes.
  • • Facilitating participation in new initiatives such as ‘connected learning’: online and face-to-face courses and tutoring.
  • • Introducing broad-scale initiatives such as a ‘local branch campus’ physically situated in a European host country, providing classes in Arabic, and employing displaced scholars.
There is no single activity or path to developing inclusive internationalisation; there are many. Internationalisation can be more than a space to support institutions’ aspirations for world-class status and facilitating talent flows. It is – and has always been – a space to intentionally include different and sometimes contradictory forms of knowledge, peoples, culture and ideas through partnerships and exchanges.

Currently there is an influx of hundreds of thousands of ‘international’ individuals in European countries, some just beginning a new phase in their lives and others who are in the process of integrating into host societies. Higher education internationalisation can be a ‘first responder’ in helping Europe proactively respond to the current refugee situation and clear a path to a brighter future.

In order to do that, we must first conceive of what inclusive internationalisation could be. Uniting. Collaborative. Integrated. Equality-focused.

Jennifer Olson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. This article first appeared in the EAIE Conference Conversation Starter 2016, published for the European Association for International Education’s 28th Annual Conference, taking place in Liverpool, UK on 13-16 September.