Internationalisation – New voices, ideas and approaches

What dimensions of internationalisation in higher education are notably under-researched and is there a new generation of researchers and analysts ready to provide fresh and innovative perspectives on this evolving phenomenon?

The Future Agenda for Internationalization in Higher Education: Next generation insights into research, policy, and practice, our just-released publication in the Routledge Internationalization in Higher Education Series – edited by Emerita Professor Elspeth Jones – aims to explore precisely these questions.

We believe that this is a timely moment for this kind of reflection. Organisations like NAFSA: Association of International Educators in the United States and the European Association for International Education are celebrating milestone anniversaries in 2018 and 2019 – 70 years and 30 years, respectively.

Much has been achieved, particularly in the last two decades, when it comes to expanding our understanding of internationalisation in practice, as well as its conceptual dimensions. But much more lies ahead for internationalisation globally, as new dynamics come into play in higher education systems and in institutions young and old, far and wide, and as an emerging generation of higher education scholars and analysts begins to find its voice.

From our perspective, the best way to understand the future of internationalisation in higher education is to shine a spotlight on the perspectives of a ‘next generation’ of internationalisation specialists from around the world and prompt them to propose what they consider to be the crucial new contexts shaping the internationalisation of higher education, new modes for exploring and understanding distinct aspects of the phenomenon and new topics relevant to its development and implementation.

Why a ‘next generation’ and why now?

Why is an exploration of emerging perspectives on the internationalisation of higher education important at this time?

First and foremost, a ‘human resources’ observation. There is a new group of internationalisation specialists emerging from behind the relatively small contingent of cutting-edge scholars and analysts who established the contemporary study of internationalisation, particularly from the mid-1980s and early 1990s onward.

That small vanguard of researchers and policy-makers laid the early – and crucially important – foundation for the field and has had a profound influence on internationalisation research and analysis in the last several decades. For example, the definitions proposed and reworked by individuals like Jane Knight and Hans de Wit (among others) have had a significant impact on the field and have subsequently served to shape and guide the internationalisation strategies adopted by institutions and governments around the world.

As the community of researchers focused on internationalisation is evolving, so too is the focus and content of the research itself, as is the context in which we work. As a result, we understand today, much more clearly than before, that the internationalisation of higher education is a worldwide phenomenon, and that it is subject to multiple interpretations at national, regional, institutional and individual levels.

We recognise that internationalisation is a relatively recent development and, as such, it presents new challenges, opportunities and imperatives for institutions and systems of higher education that, in many instances, have been operating for decades (if not centuries) with highly localised frames of reference, and without the need to consider matters of global engagement in significant ways.

We appreciate that internationalisation is a phenomenon that demands and exerts change, while simultaneously responding and adapting to shifting contextual realities.

As our knowledge base grows, so too does our awareness that we need fresh perspectives to guide us to the next frontier of our understanding of, and engagement with, the internationalisation agenda as it plays out worldwide.

The importance of who, what and how

There has been a veritable explosion in attention paid to the internationalisation of higher education in recent years, particularly in terms of policy and practice.

Evidence for this includes the robust growth in numbers of attendees at the annual conferences and other meetings of professional organisations such as the International Education Association of South Africa, NAFSA, the International Education Association of Australia, the European Association for International Education, the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education and the African Network for Internationalisation of Education, among others.

Publications and media outlets that focus on the international dimensions of higher education have proliferated, while a wide array of relevant training modules and graduate programmes have also emerged or expanded to meet increasing demand.

The expansion of the field has been impressive, but has brought with it some concerns about quality versus quantity, untested assumptions guiding policy and a range of imbalances embedded in the field.

At the level of an individual institution, such imbalances may be made manifest by the lack of representation of diverse stakeholders in internationalisation activities or agenda development. On a global scale, concerns in this vein have prompted moves to heighten awareness about inequities inherent in many international ‘partnerships’ and programmes.

Similar trends are in evidence in relation to research in the field. Indeed, although research into the internationalisation of higher education is conducted around the world, recent analysis of global trends in research highlights a concentration of focus on a small number of (principally Anglophone) countries and a narrow range of key topics (predominantly related to the international mobility of students).

As internationalisation becomes increasingly relevant for strategic decision-making by institutions, and with respect to policy-making and resource allocation activities by governmental entities and other key decision-makers, it is vital that diverse perspectives – grounded in critical, high-quality scholarship – are taken into account.

A new generation of observers of internationalisation can surface important new ideas and model novel ways of knowing that enhance our frames of reference in vital new ways.

New voices, new ideas, new approaches

We contend that the key to understanding the future of internationalisation in higher education lies in undertaking thoughtful consideration of the ‘new contexts’ shaping the phenomenon, the ‘new topics’ relevant to its development and implementation and how ‘new modes’ for exploring and understanding distinct aspects of the phenomenon can bring us valuable new insights.

Our position is that it is vitally important to further develop these dimensions of the study of internationalisation in order to understand the complex web of factors that will shape its future as well as our ability to leverage the phenomenon to enhance both the quality of higher education and the many services that the sector provides to society.

Given the difficult changes and challenging scenarios ahead, it is important to clear a path for new ideas and new voices to join in this conversation to encourage both new questions and new solutions.

In this light, a consideration of new contexts pushes the boundaries of the more well-known settings for internationalisation – for example, looking at new political and economic contexts for the phenomenon or cultural and geographical contexts which are as yet relatively unexplored.

Exploring new modes by which the study of internationalisation may advance offers hope that our understanding of internationalisation will reach well beyond the classic case study or small-scale survey, for example, through the use of large-scale datasets at a global level or highly innovative research methodologies.

Scanning the horizon for new topics opens the door on a range of new perspectives on subjects and issues that can be the focus of research in connection with internationalisation, and which have not yet been explored to any significant extent.

Douglas Proctor is director of international affairs at University College Dublin in Ireland, and Laura E Rumbley is associate director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States.