A look on the bright side of HE internationalisation

Extensive research over the past five years provides solid evidence that international programme and provider mobility (IPPM) is increasing in scope and scale.

For example, recent data from a 2016 report by Universities UK indicates that about half of all foreign students registered for a UK higher education qualification do not take the full academic programme in the United Kingdom – instead, the programmes are moving to students.

Furthermore, it is estimated that more than 130 countries are involved in IPPM and in some host IPPM countries up to 30% or 40% of the local students are accessing some form of higher education through IPPM.

However, utter chaos in the use and understanding of the terms transnational, cross-border and offshore education and the general lack of appropriate regulatory policies for IPPM are two unintended consequences of this unprecedented growth.

It is time that the mobility of people (such as students and scholars) was differentiated from the mobility of programmes and providers. Both are important but the policies, regulations, benefits and risks associated with international student and scholar mobility (ISSM) are different from those for the international mobility of programmes and providers.

Debate, data and research on ISSM dominates the study of internationalisation. To date there is a paucity of research and focus on IPPM.

Recent IPPM research findings by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) call for the collection of robust IPPM data to help:
  • • Improve policy-making at national and institutional levels;

  • • Ensure that licensing and quality assurance measures are in place;

  • • Undertake international comparative analysis of trends, benefits and risks;

  • • Provide the necessary support to international partnerships that focus on the joint provision of academic programmes and collaborative research.
Independent vs collaborative forms of IPPM

A new IPPM classification framework developed by the British Council and DAAD in 2017 organises different types of programme and provider mobility into two categories – independent and collaborative. Independent IPPM activities are largely franchise programmes, international branch campuses and self-study distance education.

Collaborative IPPM activities include partnership programmes such as twinning, joint or double degree programmes, distance education with local academic partners and international joint universities.

Different mapping studies of IPPM around the world show that collaborative activities are far more numerous than independent ones.

At the risk of overgeneralisation, collaborative activities put more emphasis on academic cooperation, reciprocity and mutual benefits for partners; independent IPPM, by contrast, is more of an import/export type of arrangement, involving little cooperation with local partners in terms of developing curriculum, joint governance and qualifications offered.

Examples of collaborative international higher education in the areas of research and academic programme development are many and varied. The explosion of joint or double degrees attests to this fact.

The establishment of international joint universities (clearly differentiated from international branch campuses) and regional or international networks take advantage of combining the different resources and expertise that partners bring to a joint initiative and recognise that reciprocity results in shared but different benefits for all partners.

The dominance of international students

Remembering that internationalisation is a process of change, one can clearly see the twists and turns with respect to the recruitment of international students. It has become big business for countries needing increased revenue for higher education and new brains for science, technology and innovation agendas.

The topic of international students continues to monopolise the discourse on internationalisation. In fact, many equate international students to internationalisation.

The recent forecasting and perhaps exaggeration of the ‘end of internationalisation’ due to travel bans and changing immigration policies in top recruitment countries exemplifies the dominance of international students in the discourse on internationalisation.

While international students bring diverse benefits, the current driving rationales such as increased revenue, recruitment and retention of the brightest and best brains, increased standing in international rankings and a counter-balance to the fall in domestic enrolment rates due to demographic changes seem to outweigh academic, social-cultural and individual benefits for students and higher education institutions.

Internationalisation is multi-dimensional and involves a much richer and more varied set of activities both on campus and abroad than only international students. Simply put, a decline or shift in international student recruitment patterns does not signify the end of internationalisation.

Looking to a bright future

The journey of higher education internationalisation has been built on the recognition and importance of relationships between and among nations – involving people, norms, knowledge systems, customs, values and legal frameworks.

Internationalisation recognises and honours the importance of local context – the nation. In fact, nations are the very foundation of internationalisation. As the journey continues, values of cooperation, mutuality, exchange and partnerships among nations need to continue to be the bedrock of internationalisation.

Despite the current turbulent times, few would question that we are living in a more interconnected and interdependent world. Global issues such as climate change, food security, terrorism and epidemics are now national issues and many national issues are now global ones. Cooperation between and among countries and actors from different sectors is paramount to effectively address these challenges.

Knowledge diplomacy is a way forward. Universities, as partners in the production and application of knowledge and the education of citizens, have much to contribute to addressing these issues and finding solutions.

It is naïve to deny that national self-interests are at play in any type of international relationship, but this does not prevent taking a collaborative approach where all can benefit and have their interests served in different ways without having to take a winner takes all approach.

The bright future of higher education internationalisation rests on growing and sustaining collaboration, reciprocity and mutual benefits.

Jane Knight is adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a distinguished visiting professor at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Email: