Internationalisation not on life support says top ranker

Talk of ‘the era of higher education internationalisation’ being in its death throes or, at least, ‘on life support’ were dismissed at the opening of the 2018 International Higher Education Forum organised by Universities UK International.

Phil Baty, editorial director of global rankings at Times Higher Education, told the around 350 delegates that suggestions that the growth of internationalisation appears to have come to a rather abrupt end, at least in Europe and North America, took him aback.

He was referring to an article in University World News on 23 February 2018 headlined ‘The challenge to higher education internationalisation’, written by Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit from the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States.

Baty accepted that global higher education faced challenges such as anti-immigration trends, tighter visa restrictions and lurches to the right in Eastern Europe and the wave of populism and nationalism in many countries.

But he told the conference at Nottingham Trent University: “I don’t believe we are in the death throes. I believe that internationalisation will continue to thrive and will not be held back by these nationalistic forces. And the reason is simple – knowledge knows no boundaries. Ideas don’t have borders and universities will continue to seek collaboration with whomever they can fruitfully develop ideas.

“For me as a ranker, I can see that internationalism drives quality in education and research.”

Baty was chairing the opening session at the event, titled ‘Internationalisation: National approaches’, which looked at the impact of differing approaches to the internationalisation of universities around the world and was timed to coincide with the publication of the Times Higher Education ranking of the most international universities in the world 2018.

Swiss on top of the world

Switzerland claimed the top two spots in the ranking, with École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne swopping places with ETH Zurich to lead this year’s ranking of the most international universities. The University of Geneva was also in the top 10, at sixth place.

The Swiss success, said Baty, “was driven by talent and by the right visa policies and collaboration opportunities”.

The University of Hong Kong came third, with Baty saying it had “really capitalised on its position straddling East and West”. The National University of Singapore clinched the fourth spot and Imperial College London picked up the UK’s best placing in fifth place.

The most international universities’ list is based on scores from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for international students, international staff, international co-authorship and international reputation metrics, explained Baty.

Targeting the best

In a session on national approaches to internationalisation, Professor Michael Hengartner, president of swissuniversities and the University of Zurich, told the Nottingham conference that despite Switzerland’s success on the higher education world stage, the country doesn’t have an internationalisation strategy because of its federal structure.

“The universities do the internationalisation,” he said.

“Switzerland has a lot of advantages being right in the middle of Europe geographically and culturally. The blend of French, German and Italian cultures plays an important role and the economy is open to neighbours who speak the same languages, which encourages the movement of both goods and ideas.

“For the last decade, Switzerland has proved an attractive work environment with 1% net growth each year and today 20% of the people living in Switzerland are non-Swiss, with the figure reaching 30% in Zürich,” said Hengartner.

Despite the multi-cultural nature, the Swiss believe strongly in national identity, explained Hengartner, and the 2014 anti-immigration referendum result saw a small majority in favour of stricter immigration rules.

“The result rocked the feathers of our neighbours and for a while we were not allowed in [the European Union’s] Horizon 2020 and we’re still not associated with Erasmus+.”

“Not being part of Erasmus+ doesn’t help mobility abroad and we have hundreds of bilateral agreements with universities outside the country which involves a lot of work, but we also encourage mobility movement between different parts of Switzerland,” said Hengartner.

He said only 20% of Swiss go to university despite no barriers to entry to higher education at the bachelor’s level and very low tuition fees. Many young people prefer to go into apprenticeships or to learn a trade.

Most undergraduates are taught in the local language, whether French or German, with recruitment focused locally or regionally, leading to lots of students from Germany and Austria in Zürich, for example.

“Where we become global is at the graduate level, where courses are available in English and we target the very best.

“We go for excellence at the postgraduate level and teaching international students is not seen as a way to make a profit.

“The understanding is that graduates will stay in the country and join the labour market and contribute to the Swiss economy. This makes it easier for people to accept because these people are smarter and can make a contribution to society,” said Hengartner.

Seizing Canada’s moment

Dr Marilyn Lambert-Drache, associate vice-president international at York University, Canada, told the conference: “Internationalisation is at the heart of Canada’s current and future prosperity and its commitment to inclusion – the platform that saw the election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister in 2017.”

She explained Canada’s successful strategy goes back to 2011 and a report on Innovation Canada – a call to action in response to a shortage of skilled labour – seen as a real threat to Canada’s long-term capacity for research and innovation.

This led to Canada’s internationalisation strategy in 2014 – a blueprint to attract talent.

“The three main goals of the strategy were to increase international students to 450,000 by 2022, prioritise a number of key education markets to target, including Vietnam, North Africa, the Middle East and Brazil, and to increase and deepen collaboration through research centres and by facilitating mobility,” said Lambert-Drache.

The international student recruitment target was achieved five years early last year when numbers nearly reached 495,000.

Surveys showed that students were choosing Canada because of its reputation for high quality of education, for being a safe country and because it offers better post-graduation job opportunities.

Lambert-Drache said institutions “were now seizing Canada’s moment” to become more globally connected and that internationalisation was seen a top priority because it enabled universities to prepare internationally knowable and inter-culturally competent graduates.

Japan’s Top Global University Project

Dr Kyosuke Nagata, vice-president of the Japan Association of National Universities and president of the University of Tsukuba, said the Japanese government had launched its Top Global University Project to enhance the globalisation of the country’s public and private universities.

Thirteen top ranked universities, including the University of Tsukuba, were selected to lead the project, which aims to help Japan overcome a number of challenges, including the shrinking number of 18-year-olds and a tiny percentage of mature students. Only 4.6% of its student population are over 25.

Japan has 2,567,000 undergraduate students and 233,000 graduate students, but less international students than it would like.

To encourage more international students from countries such as the UK, Canada and Switzerland with a strong reputation for internationalisation, Japan is increasing the number of inter-university agreements and also expanding inter-university exchange projects with countries in new markets, such as South America, and increasing the number of international scholarships.

Figures quoted by Nagata showed there were 563 UK students studying in Japan, with 344 from Canada and 94 from Switzerland. There are 5,827 Japanese students studying in the UK, 8,875 in Canada and 383 in Switzerland.

Nagata said the government wants more Japanese students to go abroad to study, but fears they are “too shy”.

The number of international researchers is also too low, with 1,715 from the UK, 714 from Canada and 499 from Switzerland, said Nagata.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications. He blogs for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European and UK universities.

This article was corrected on 19 March to indicate that Canada's strategy goes back to 2011, not 2001, and that the international student numbers reached 495,000 not 475,000.