Challenges of internationalising higher education

The beginning of the 21st century has seen a great increase in mobility and migration – both voluntary and forced by external circumstances. These developments have increased the demand for intercultural skills and innovative approaches and to keep up with them higher education institutions need to do all they can to help ready their graduates for coming global challenges.

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Over recent years, Russian universities have been actively promoting themselves as potential partners for academic exchange and research as well as a destination for international students and faculty members.

Efforts by Russian universities to increase the number of international students and faculty were greatly boosted by the recent nationwide Academic Excellence Project – Project 5-100 – which was launched in 2013. The goal of the project is to enable five Russian universities to enter the top 100 in the world university rankings by 2020.

Russian universities underwent deep and rapid transformation in order to address such things as publication activity, the number of international students and faculty, curriculum content, new programmes taught in English, joint programmes with international partners etc.

Thus internationalisation has become an everyday reality for Russian universities and the main driver of their pursuit for global recognition.

Internationalisation has many facets, but it is difficult to imagine it without international students or faculty. The major issues are the same for Russian universities as they are for their partners across the globe: 1) how to attract and retain the best students, and 2) how to make sure they can participate fully in university life.

Attraction and retention

In order to recruit students globally, universities need globally competitive educational products. For Russian universities, as for many universities in countries which do not have English as a first or second language, that means increasing the number of courses and programmes they offer in English.

In turn, such programmes require faculty who can impart cutting-edge knowledge to students in English while at the same time conducting world-class research. All of this was already happening to some extent, but the participation in Project 5-100 caused an explosion-like boost of recruitment efforts and the creation of new programmes.

In three years the original 15 participating universities managed to nearly quadruple the number of international faculty and to double the percentage of international students, creating nearly 300 new graduate and undergraduate programmes taught fully in English.

Naturally, such rapid growth created a need to rethink the ways in which universities were handling and structuring formal and informal curricula. In terms of the formal curriculum, course materials and classroom interaction have to be adjusted in order to take into account different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and leverage this diversity.

As the number of students grows, these considerations become more and more pressing. The only effective way to meet this challenge is through a comparable diversity of faculty members.

In terms of the informal curriculum, these developments produce a greater need for services that help incoming students and faculty to adapt to their new surroundings and for making the environment more inclusive.

Building or restructuring a system of support for incoming internationals requires a delicate balance: between providing the necessary extra support to adapt to an unfamiliar linguistic and regulatory environment and making sure that they do not end up in an isolated 'bubble' of 'internationals only'.

Such an endeavour cannot be done in a simple top-down fashion and requires building an inner network of allies who can be the backbone for the comprehensive approach to university internationalisation which is required as the number of international students and faculty continue to grow.

Part of which community?

International students acquire unique sets of skills and the added value of their diverse cultural background can be greatly beneficial to the community within the university and outside it. However, community integration is perhaps the trickiest challenge. The university as an institution can only create the conditions in which those who work in the university feel free and welcome. It cannot intervene further than that into how the academic community lives.

However, the university is not the only community that is available to students and faculty – they also have the city where they are living and the country as a whole. But to what extent? As worldwide security concerns grow, regulations concerning visas and work permits often become more restrictive and the students universities attract are less in a position to enrich their experience further by staying in their country of study for part of their professional track.

The question remains as to how much universities can help alleviate this growing problem so that highly skilled graduates with international experience and intercultural skills can be a valuable asset to the place where they study if they are interested in staying on.

Challenge ahead

Universities in Russia face the same problems as other universities across the globe which are aiming to attract the best students and faculty and are playing a crucial role in preparing global citizens. One of the biggest challenges we all need to respond to is finding a way to let local and regional communities benefit from the global resources universities attract, not least of which are international graduates.

Yulia Grinkevich is director of internationalisation at National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia. Maria Shabanova is deputy director of the Academic Integration Centre at NRU Higher School of Economics.