Why curriculum internationalisation isn’t working

Curriculum internationalisation is a key issue in higher education today. It is argued that such internationalisation is important for developing students’ intercultural awareness, a global perspective of their subject area and the competences necessary for their future career.

But how has its actual practice affected students’ learning experiences? This article reports the views and experiences of Chinese masters students in business and engineering studies at a British and an Australian university.

Curriculum internationalisation

Despite an awareness that knowledge does not emerge from a single cultural base, the curriculum in the studied universities is mainly based on Western perspectives. Curriculum internationalisation is largely restricted to course content, for example, teaching case studies that cover an international context.

The nature of a particular discipline affects how academics understand curriculum internationalisation. In engineering, academics do not feel the need to internationalise their curriculum because they perceive their subject as universal, for instance.

This scenario raises two concerns. First, how to encourage academics, especially those in the hard sciences, to internationalise their curricula remains an issue to be explored. Second, if the curriculum content is mainly based on Western perspectives, this does not provide students with opportunities to explore issues from other cultures. Instead it can mean the class is structured in favour of the home students.

Student mobility

Student mobility is a key feature of curriculum internationalisation. However, there is a clear lack of opportunities for Chinese students to gain internships, take part in industry visits and international exchanges during their masters studies in both Australian and British universities. Academic staff point out that language and administrative issues are the key barriers that limit such mobility.

The university manager rationalises this problem by saying that masters students come from different cultures so they already have international experience. In contrast, Chinese students express a strong desire for mobility opportunities so they can gain international experience because most of their classmates are Chinese, especially in business studies.

Chinese students in general do not find their masters education value for money. The over focus on Western perspectives in their subject does not make them feel readily employable because they have to return to China after graduation due to visa restrictions.

This contrasts with the view of academic staff that Western perspectives are important and have fed into codes of practice adopted all over the world. These different understandings suggest that universities and academics need to understand students’ expectations with regard to employability rather than trying to define what international students need to become employable.

Intercultural awareness

Chinese students’ interaction with peers from different cultures is raised as another challenge for both British and Australian universities. The main issues are cultural differences, language barriers and a feeling of being treated differently.

Chinese students experience challenges in classroom discussion and in making friends with peers from non-Chinese cultures even though they have passed the official English language test. This suggests that passing the language test does not guarantee that international students will not experience language barriers when studying abroad.

A feeling of being discriminated against is another concern of Chinese students. This perceived discrimination includes some students from non-Chinese cultures refusing to communicate with Chinese students and downgrading Chinese students’ contributions to group work. This suggests that group work could become a source of discomfort if there is a lack of intercultural awareness among the student cohort.


There is a strong need for universities to internationalise their curricula in order to prepare students to become competent and employable in the international market. Job security is a major motivation for Chinese students to study abroad and most of them need to return to China after graduation due to visa restrictions.

Chinese students therefore need to not only understand Western perspectives and codes of practice, but also develop practical experience and skills that will help them in their future jobs in China.

The lack of mobility experiences reduces Chinese students’ opportunities to get work experience in the UK and Australia. This issue will need to be addressed holistically, involving universities, the government and industry in order to reduce visa restrictions for international students to get internships from companies.

Perhaps it is time for universities to consider providing short mobility programmes that could support international students to gain work experience during their study.

Cultural diversity in the classroom is another area which Australian and UK universities need to work on. The majority of students are Chinese in business studies, which does not mean that there is an international learning environment.

This undermines the essence of curriculum internationalisation as an avenue for cross-cultural interaction and disadvantages Chinese students, isolating them from getting to know and interact with different cultures. This will in turn encourage students to withdraw into their own national groups and entrenches a feeling of ‘otherisation’.

It is high time that Western universities took concerted action to support students and academic staff to increase their intercultural awareness, for example, by increasing the quality of student learning through developing programmes that are attractive to students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Meanwhile universities could enhance students’ engagement with curriculum design and development through using their perspectives and cultural experiences as learning resources.

Dr Ming Cheng is a reader at the Institute of Education, Faculty of Education, Health and Wellbeing at the University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom. She will be speaking at the Society for Research into Higher Education's annual conference on 7-9 December on how curriculum internationalisation affects Chinese students’ learning experiences.