Ethical internationalisation for all is not impossible

On 15 July I wrote in my commentary ‘Internationalisation should be ethical and for all’ that in higher education there seems to be a division emerging “between word-class universities – with global research, students and scholars; competing and collaborating across the world; located in vibrant cosmopolitan urban environments; and benefiting from ample (inter)national and private resources – and others struggling with shrinking budgets, less-talented students and scholars, and located in rural or economically challenged areas.”

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I observed that internationalisation is seen as a privileged activity for the first group, leading to increased quality and opportunities. For the other group, internationalisation reflects a desperate and likely unrealistic aspiration to climb higher in the rankings, to find scarce sources for grants and scholarships and to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

I expressed concern that this latter group and its students are increasingly outsourcing to private companies which are only interested in profit, and encountering issues of fraud and corruption as a result of shrinking public funding and falling numbers of local students. In response to this development, I stated, some call for an ethical internationalisation. Others are calling for an internationalisation for all.

I concluded that focusing attention on an ‘elitist’ internationalisation, affordable only for a small group of global universities and privileged students and scholars, is dangerous because it contributes to increasing the gap between those institutions and individuals and the more disadvantaged.

Internationalisation for all

Although I received in general positive feedback from this call for an ethical internationalisation for all, some commented that I gave a too black-and-white picture of higher education and that there are many universities that are not part of the world-class elite group which are not falling for incompetency, outsourcing, fraud and corruption and so forth.

They are, of course, right in that critique. There are probably more universities and colleges in the second category which strive for an internationalisation for all and have higher percentages of their students and staff involved in international activities than those in the first group and they have to be commended for those policies and actions.

My fear though is that national and institutional policies more than ever seem to be directed towards widening the gap.

The recent decision of the government of Norway, following in the footsteps of several other countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Chile and Brazil, to restrict access to its generous scholarship scheme to students seeking study abroad opportunities in the top elite universities in the world, is the latest example of this trend.

If even a country like Norway, known for its egalitarian mentality, is moving in this direction, the risk is high that many other governments will follow as they generally have little imagination and tend to copy each other in their strategies.

Positive signals

As I stated in my July commentary, the current political and economic climate needs measures that enhance mutual understanding and cooperation, not further divisions.

In a 2015 study for the European Parliament, an initiative was proposed to extend the generally accepted definition of internationalisation by Jane Knight so as to read:

“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 revised definition seeks to make three key points:
  • • It indicates that the process is a planned and purposeful one, which creates a framework for future direction and is designed to strengthen and enhance higher education institutions’ performance and quality. An intentional process is one of consideration, decision and action.

  • • It reflects increased awareness that internationalisation of higher education needs to be more inclusive and less elitist and that the ‘abroad’ component is an integral part of an internationalised curriculum for all students. It also includes staff, since internationalisation of higher education is critically dependent on active engagement and the wholehearted commitment of all higher education institutions’ staff members, who through their various academic and management functions will be at “the coalface of delivery”.

  • • It re-emphasises that internationalisation of higher education is not a goal in itself, but a means to enhance quality within and beyond the institution, and for that reason it should not focus solely on economic rationales.
One could claim that this extended definition is adding a normative direction, where a definition needs to be neutral.

But in a context in which internationalisation is used in broad, diverse and unintended ways, akin to a globalisation process with strong commercial dimensions, a more normative approach can provide a perspective in which universities prepare all their graduates and faculty to become global academics, professionals and citizens who are aware of and willing to address global challenges and issues, such as the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.

That may sound idealistic and as if it flies in the face of the current political climate of nationalist, populist and anti-international sentiment, as expressed in elections and referenda all over the world these days. It goes against the return of Cold War positions and violations of human rights, such as academic as well as other freedoms that we assumed over the past few decades as becoming a more global reality.

But if we look behind those sentiments, the current discontent finds its basis in the fact that in higher education, like in other sectors, there has emerged an increasing gap between those who are part of the elite and those who are not. Are there, though, any positive signals in internationalisation that we can find?

The expansion of internationalisation

It certainly is encouraging to see that internationalisation is expanding more in higher education institutions as well as at other levels of education which have been less involved and engaged in it in the past. Community colleges in the United States, universities of applied sciences in Europe as well as elementary and high schools are increasingly taking the lead.

These kinds of initiatives need more support, and not only in Europe and the US but in particular in the developing world where access to higher education and study abroad are still even more of an elitist issue.

Cooperation and partnership on equal terms can and should play an important role in creating an ethical internationalisation for all. Higher education can be a soft power, as it was intended to be after the Second World War through programmes such as Fulbright.

The slow-starting but now more active role of the higher education community in the refugee crisis is a positive sign that can be the basis for further active global engagement. The same is true for organisations such as Scholars at Risk, which helps threatened academics, that are doing important work and receiving more support from the higher education community.

We should not let ourselves ignore such encouraging signals, but make this ethical internationalisation for all the norm.

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