Internationalisation of HE through distance learning

Over recent decades, the international dimension of higher education has become an essential part of the agenda of higher education institutions and governments all over the world. While countries compete with each other to host international students, supranational organisations, such as the OECD and UNESCO, compare the numbers of international students in several countries in order to shed light on the level of internationalisation of different higher education systems.

But it is worth asking whether the internationalisation of higher education should be solely dependent on the physical mobility of students across national borders. As stated by Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College: "Internationalisation of higher education over the past decades is moving more from a focus on 'abroad' towards a focus on 'at home', placing less stress on physical mobility for a small group."

The general idea of ‘internationalisation at home’ is a relevant topic explored recently by commentaries on this website and in other publications.

Internationalisation has traditionally been embraced by higher education stakeholders for its academic, economic, social/cultural and political advantages. To access these benefits, universities, on the one hand, host international students at their own institutions and, on the other hand, send their own students to study abroad.

Nevertheless, physical mobility-oriented internationalisation cannot meet stakeholders’ expectations on its own, because it enables just a minority of students to internationalise.

For example, as the UNESCO statistics indicate, there are currently around 4.5 million physically mobile international students in the world. These are the relatively few lucky ones whose families can sponsor their education abroad or who can find a scholarship and move to another country. According to the UNESCO data, that number represents roughly 2% of the higher education students in the world. How about the other 98%?

Likewise, in Europe, as statistics from the European Commission and UNICollaboration indicate, Erasmus+, an intra-European mobility programme with a budget of €15 billion (US$17.8 billion), has provided just 4.5% of European students with the chance of physical mobility from one country to another. That means that the vast majority of European students are excluded from the benefits of the programme.

Distance learning in Turkey and Brazil

The figures above reveal that physical mobility-oriented internationalisation does not ensure 'internationalisation for all' on its own. For this reason, strategies for internationalisation at home need to be employed to help more students experience an international curriculum, classmates and instructors. An interesting way of achieving this might be internationalisation via distance learning, which provides students with the relative independence of time and space.

Distance learning is now an integral part of mass higher education systems in emerging countries and could be an essential tool for internationalising their systems. It is estimated that at least 21 million students from emerging countries have studied through distance higher education in recent years and this number is growing very quickly.

Turkey is among the countries that access international students by means of distance learning. The statistics from the Council of Higher Education indicate that three open education faculties in Turkey have already succeeded in enrolling hundreds of international distance students.

As such, Anadolu University's Open Education Faculty has 1,854 international distance students, which corresponds to almost 40% of the university's total number of international students.

Similarly, Atatürk University's Faculty of Open Education currently has 323 international distance students, equivalent to one fifth of the university's total number of international students. Istanbul University's Open and Distance Education Faculty has 720 international distance students – making up a 10th of its international students.

As most of the online courses are offered in Turkish, most of the international distance students taught by these universities are from neighbouring countries, the Turkish republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, or Turkish communities abroad. Over time, it is possible that more courses will be offered in English so that more international distance students from other parts of the world can be included. In addition, international distance students may need administrative support from universities to enrol on online degree programmes and technical support to use online course systems.

In other emerging countries such as Brazil, distance education has been mostly used as a way to expand higher education internally to meet internal demand. Experiences of internationalisation through distance learning in Brazil are almost non-existent. The potential, however, is huge.

Brazil has approximately 1.5 million online students, most of whom are at private institutions. The total number of foreign students in the Brazilian higher education system is quite low. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Education, in 2016 only 15,796 out of the eight million students were from abroad. Those students represent less than 0.2% of the total student population.

In the past few years, Brazil has faced the huge challenge of increasing higher education internationalisation, as can be seen when we look at the Science Without Borders programme. Language has been a huge barrier to attracting students as almost all programmes and courses in the Brazilian higher education system are offered in Portuguese.

Recently some courses in English are popping up at institutions, but such initiatives are still in the very early stages. Even though the potential of internationalisation in distance education programmes is huge, language is not only a barrier for on campus internationalisation, but also for internationalisation through distance learning.

It is important to note here that having international distance students can serve internationalisation of higher education in emerging countries in several ways:
  • • Academically, local students and academics can get a chance to meet international students in online classes and exchange knowledge.

  • • Economically, universities generate income from international distance students' tuition fees.

  • • Socially or culturally, international students can learn about other emerging countries' culture and history.

  • • And politically, those countries can gain soft power as their universities access people in different parts of the world over the internet.
What we observe here is the initial steps towards digital internationalisation of higher education. According to Jane Knight, internationalisation of higher education is “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education”.

Internationalisation can be carried out not only via physical mobility but also through a wide range of initiatives through distance education at home. As universities make academic partnerships for physical mobility, why can they not make them for digital mobility? Students could do distance courses or modules of the foreign partner-institution at their home university.

Costs and curricula

There are several advantages for emerging countries in comparison to physical mobility. Unlike traditional international students, digital international students do not face the burdens of paying high tuition fees and spending time and money moving to another country. Similarly, universities do not need to arrange extra seats in classes and extra beds in dormitories for digital internationals. That brings internationalisation costs down.

Furthermore, higher education institutions bring instructors and students from different parts of the world together in online courses which incentivises universities to develop international curricula.

On the other hand, there are quality concerns. How can universities ensure quality if students are based in different countries? It will be necessary to implement certain mechanisms to ensure a quality service in distance education across borders.

It is important to investigate the importance of a face-to-face element for digital internationalisation: short face-to-face courses at the foreign institution – lasting only some days or a few weeks – could be an interesting way of complementing digital mobility experiences while keeping costs down.

Considering that physical mobility-oriented internationalisation makes just a minority of students international, digital mobility-oriented internationalisation via distance programmes can be a good way for universities and higher education systems in emerging countries to become more international.

It is time to extend the range of internationalisation initiatives and discuss new efforts to facilitate more equal opportunities for internationalisation that go beyond physical mobility. Digital internationalisation of higher education is a key element in this process.

Hakan Ergin holds a PhD in educational sciences from Bogazici University, Turkey. He also teaches at Istanbul University in Turkey. His research interests include internationalisation of higher education, migration, adult education, right to education and distance learning. Email: Bruno Morche holds a PhD in sociology of higher education from Brazil and an MA in comparative education from the UCL Institute of Education in the United Kingdom. He is a higher education specialist and his international and professional background – working in the higher education industry and with EdTechs – encompasses countries such as Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, Chile and the United States. Email: