International higher education must address inequality

When properly implemented, internationalisation of higher education brings about enhanced inter-cultural understanding, global competencies, international research collaboration and improvements in the quality of higher education. Its effect on the social stratification of nations, regions and their respective populations, however, has been neglected.

Social stratification

Limited and targeted government funding to higher education institutions in pursuit of world-class university status, to those wanting to become global and-or regional higher education hubs and to international student mobility facilitate polarisation in society which is not limited to the higher education sector.

Even without internationalisation of higher education, national higher education systems already facilitate social stratification. Access and inequality issues and the difference in quality and reputation of higher education institutions already create a hurdle to labour market entry, skills and competency acquisition and access to further education in national and global higher education systems and institutions.

At the regional level, a nation’s wealth, the quality of its higher education system and access to higher education opportunities at home and abroad significantly improve the chances of their respective citizens. In spite of these, access to good-quality higher education is restricted to those with significant resources and talent. In short, social stratification in higher education occurs even in most wealthy nations.

Wealthy (and especially Anglo-Saxon) higher education systems, however, tend to have the agglomeration of world-class universities, international research and publications and a massive inbound international student population. As such, they tend to have significant control over knowledge production, dissemination and a strong alumni network usually (but not always) located within the upper strata of society.

Global/regional higher education hubs also have the same characteristics and tend to be a magnet for international students who can afford to pay tuition fees and-or are awarded scholarships.

Given the need for global competencies within a knowledge-based society, the typology of higher education institutions at national, regional and global levels tends to be stratified into world-class elite research universities, elite national universities and other universities.

Similarly, faculty and students who teach, research or attend higher education institutions fall into one of the above-mentioned typologies, reinforcing social stratification at higher education level and increasing polarisation in society.

This notion of typology in higher education tends to spill over into the labour market and society in general.

Internationalisation at home

It should be noted that internationalisation of higher education goes beyond international mobility of students, faculty and collaborative research to incorporating an international dimension within higher education institutions, their programmes or courses, faculty and students.

National higher education systems should institutionalise internationalisation at home, which not only focuses on curriculum development and the study abroad experience, but also enhanced faculty development, internationalising the campus and creating opportunities for international internships, attending or hosting international conferences and international research collaboration.

No higher education institution should be left behind in national internationalisation of higher education initiatives given the fact that the skills and competencies required in contemporary society are not only rapidly changing but are increasingly global.

Not being in the upper strata of national higher education systems or in the global ranking league tables does not mean these institutions do not have a responsibility to ensure their graduates acquire the necessary skills and competencies required by the global knowledge-based society.

A sustainable society

Higher education institutions not only serve the economy by graduating future labourers and entrepreneurs. They also serve a nation-building (and increasingly region-building) function and significantly contribute to nurturing a sustainable, peaceful and progressive global community.

As such, internationalisation of higher education needs to be recalibrated to incorporate and enhance a multicultural awareness dimension, identity formation and, most importantly, global citizenship education. The future of our world lies in young people and their development – university provides an important role in identity formation, representing a period of institutionalised delay granted by society which grants the individual time to develop a viable adult identity.

As such, higher education institutions, without exception, bear the significant responsibility of developing their students into responsible national, regional and global citizens and forming leaders with the necessary global skills, competencies and identity.

Lastly, the discussion on internationalisation of higher education within the academic and political communities needs to go beyond international student mobility, demographic arguments, economic rationales and the race for world-class status which have been the focus for the past decade.

There is a serious need to recognise that internationalisation of higher education contributes to social stratification at national, regional and global levels and the discussion should focus on how to mediate this effect to ensure a sustainable and peaceful global community.

Dr Roger Chao Jr is currently a senior consultant for the International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, a UNESCO Category 2 Centre. Aside from being the former international consultant for UNESCO in Myanmar, he has been engaged with several consultancies related to higher education with UNESCO. His research focus is on regionalisation of higher education, higher education reforms and comparative and international education.