International education in 2017 – Any room for optimism?

Last year was a year of many surprises and challenges for higher education and for its international dimensions. Brexit, the United States presidential elections, the political crisis in Turkey, the new leadership in the Philippines and in other countries, as well as the refugee challenge and terrorist attacks in Europe, have all had a serious impact.

Increasing political instability and the surge of national-populist appeal around the world calls into question the values and ethics that international educators have strived for over so many years.

In these complex and unstable circumstances, looking forward is more difficult than ever. What can we expect in the current climate, and is there room for optimism?

Shifting international student flows

In discussions about the future of internationalisation after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president, most of the attention has been on issues of immigration, visas and student mobility. The views expressed, in particular by Philip Altbach and myself in University World News, have been pessimistic.

And there are certainly reasons to be pessimistic if one looks at the issue from the perspective of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Although not immediately, the growth in absolute numbers of degree mobility towards these countries will stop and their already declining market share will further decrease over the next four to five years.

For a few years more, the bulk of incoming students will still come from China (to both countries), and India (to the United States). Student inflow from other countries and regions will decrease because of anti-immigration policies and the negative perceptions of many students and their families.

Other English-speaking countries, in particular Canada, but also Australia and New Zealand, will benefit from this shift. But I foresee in particular an increase in intra-regional mobility: in Southeast Asia (in particular to China); in Central Asia (in particular to Russia); in Latin America; in Africa; and in the Middle East. Asia will become an alternative to Europe and North America for students from other regions of the world.

These trends were already taking place before 2016, but the current political climate in Europe and the United States will stimulate this further in the years to come.

The implications will be uneven. World-class universities will be less affected than public universities and the less reputable private universities. From this perspective, a recent study indicating that public universities in the United States have compensated for the reduction in state funding by raising revenue from international students should act as a warning light. They may be the most obvious victims of the new administration.

Likewise, UK higher education will suffer from Brexit and from the immigration restrictions on international students of the Conservative government. But where there are losers, there will be winners.

These universities and countries will have to learn lessons and plan their funding strategies wisely. Making higher education dependent on revenue from international students is a risky business in the long run, certainly if those students come mainly from one or two countries. Moreover, it does little to enhance diversity on campus.

Looking out

Although we sometimes seem to forget it, internationalisation is about more than student mobility. Over the past years, we have seen a growth in short-term credit mobility, branch campuses and other forms of transnational education, international online delivery, joint and double degree programmes, international service learning and internships, international research collaboration and internationalisation of the curriculum.

What will the current anti-global, anti-immigrant, national-populist wave mean for these aspects of internationalisation? Who will be the winners and the losers?

I recently read two new books that address the current state of internationalisation: The Internationalization of Higher Education and Business Schools: A critical review by Gabriel Hawawini, professor of finance and former dean at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France (Springer, 2016), and Internationalization of Higher Education: An analysis through spatial, network, and mobilities theories by Marianne Larsen, associate professor at the faculty of education, Western University, Canada (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

They intend to bring new perspectives from different angles to the steadily growing number of new books and articles on internationalisation of higher education. Do they provide us with some inspiring perspectives?

What they both have in common is that they are critical of the definitions of internationalisation given by Jane Knight in 2004 and the updated version provided since 2015 by myself and others.

Hawawini is of the opinion that these definitions do not capture the essence of the internationalisation process “whose ultimate goal should be to integrate the institution into the emerging global knowledge economy rather than integrate an international dimension into the existing institutional setting”.

I see no contradiction between his view and those expressed in the preceding definitions as internationalisation is always perceived as a two-way process: bringing international dimensions in, and exposing stakeholders to external, international dimensions. Still, Hawawini correctly emphasises the importance for students, faculty, departments and institutions to reach outside higher education and integrate into the emerging global knowledge economy.

According to Larsen, these definitions are normative and operate from a number of unstated assumptions: that higher education institutions are not already, or not sufficiently, international; that there is a distinction between international, intercultural and global; and that internationalisation is a counter-strategy to globalisation.

Her alternative definition of internationalisation as “the expansion of the spatiality of the university beyond borders through mobilities of students, scholars, knowledge, programmes and providers” does not convince me entirely, as it focuses too much on mobility, even though her interpretation of the term is very broad.

But like Hawawini, she emphasises the importance of changing the focus from observing what happens inside the institution to looking out, and I can see the relevance of moving that aspect of internationalisation more to the forefront.

Networks as the future

Following their line of argument, is it indeed the case that the discourse on internationalisation has been taking place too much within the ivory towers of higher education and that, for that reason, we have lost sight of the world outside?

Although with quite different analyses and approaches, both authors call strongly for us to engage with the world outside. They both seem intrigued by the notion of an international university and, in the case of Hawawini, by that of a “metanational university”. This is, according to him, the ultimate form of a global higher education institution, although he acknowledges that such a university does not yet exist.

The idea of networks is strongly present as well. Hawawini's “metanational university” is “an interconnected and integrated knowledge and learning network spanning the world and composed of complementary campuses that operate in a symbiotic mode, free from a home-campus bias and driven by a desire to learn from the world by melding together the knowledge acquired in each location to create new insights rather than simply transmit to the world what an institution has learned in its home country”.

Larsen states that internationalisation of higher education needs “to take into account the existence and productive effects of networks of socio-spatial relations in shaping individual motivations, identities and experiences as transnational students and scholars”. She also stresses the need to break away from the binary logic of place/space, local/global and domestic/foreign in the way we approach internationalisation.

Room for optimism?

What Hawawini and Larsen advocate is not new. Others, including myself in my contributions to University World News and in other publications, have called for an approach to internationalisation that is more comprehensive and integrated, instead of fragmented, ad hoc and marginal.

Yet these notions of looking outward rather than inward, striving to develop ‘metanational’ network institutions and breaking with traditional binary logic provide us with optimistic perspectives on the future of internationalisation because they emphasise change and growth through openness, dialogue, exchange and connectedness – contrary to the current, nationalistic political trends mentioned above.

That optimism, as Larsen suggests in her conclusion, might well come more from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East than from Europe and the United States in the coming years. Larsen correctly remarks that there needs to be more attention paid to what is happening in these regions with regard to internationalisation.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: He is co-editor with Jocelyne Gacel-Avila, Elspeth Jones and Nico Jooste of The Globalization of Internationalization: Emerging voices and perspectives (Internationalization in Higher Education Series, Routledge), published this month, which looks precisely at developments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.