Renovating internationalisation for the 21st century

Higher education internationalisation is not dead, nor dying, but under significant pressure to change. These are the conclusions of a panel of three of NAFSA’s five current Senior Fellows who presented at the recent 2018 conference of NAFSA: Association of International Educators on 30 May and who co-authored this article.

Before more than 100 attendees from numerous countries, we laid out the trends, challenges and opportunities facing higher education internationalisation. A view we strongly shared was that in the 21st century, societally relevant higher education routinely accesses global pathways of cutting-edge knowledge, ideas and student and scholar talent.

Further, integrating an international and comparative perspective throughout all three higher education missions – teaching/ learning, research/scholarship and community engagement – is an imperative. Among many current trends and specific issues, several were highlighted in the presentation.

Globalisation and the third higher education mission

Populist reactions to globalisation, for example, Brexit and elections in the United States and Europe, underscore the need to internationalise higher education’s ‘third’ mission of community engagement and problem solving, particularly in partnership with communities and societies intent on bridging the local and the global.

There are coalescing obligations to provide workforce-ready graduates for a global economy as well as to partner with communities to develop cross-border economic opportunities, connections, citizenship-building and understanding.

Integrating refugees and at-risk migrants

The challenges in today’s global society are multiple and can sometimes seem distant from the work being done in internationalisation of higher education. Nevertheless, there is a great need to see internationalisation beyond the conventional and to connect it more effectively to those issues that are apparently distant.

Today, for instance, the recorded 65.6 million forcibly displaced people and 22.5 million refugees who have had to flee their home countries raise another challenge for higher education internationalisation.

Their children will need K-12 education and teachers who are prepared to help them; some will seek access to university education; and most will demand continuing education opportunities; some are scholars at risk.

So far we have not had to think of international education mobility in these terms, but displacement has now become a form of mobility that requires us to respond. While developing cross-cultural understanding has always been a core component of mobility programmes, the mobility of refugees and their needs compel us to accept a pressing moral obligation.

New forms of mobility with demographic change

Mobility is diversifying in other ways as well, driven by varied motivations, modes of participation, such as short-term and active learning options, and outcome expectations, such as careers, jobs and immigration. These are outside the once mainstream forms of mobility of a semester or longer and liberal-arts-oriented experiences.

Many new forms aren’t counted in the statistics and yet they are the principal avenues of mobility growth. Mobility figures have risen from roughly two million students two decades ago to estimates of as many as 12-15 million by 2030, counting all forms. Additionally, there are some 13 million cross-border, online students today.

The evolution of mobility extends to cross-border movements of faculty and scholars, seen by some as global brain circulation. Institutional mobility, for example through transnational education and a proliferation of inter-institutional partnerships in education, dual or joint degrees and research, is also expanding.

These mobility changes are made possible and necessary by the emergence of a global higher education capacity, fed by the rapid expansion of the world’s middle class, although this is regionally uneven, and by a national thirst for higher education that is responsive to knowledge-economy priorities.

By 2030 about 58% of the world’s middle class will be in Asia, rising to 65% by 2050. Higher education participation rates are exploding with more than 50 countries now having rates in excess of 50%.

Expanding global higher education capacity

It is estimated that there will be a tripling or more of global higher education capacity to 300 million places by 2030, with the vast majority of this growth outside of North America, Europe and the Antipodes, but mostly in middle-income countries, regardless of region.

Similarly, research and development expenditure is spreading globally: the aggregate of Asia-wide expenditure now exceeds that of either North America or Europe. Research productivity is spreading in terms of geographical origins of publications; in recent years, the growth rate in cross-border co-authored publications has been four to five times that of ‘domestically’ co-authored publications. Scholarship and innovation are spreading globally.

Changing global enrolment and implications

Low- and middle-income countries now have the greatest share of worldwide higher education enrolment. By 2030, 42% of the globe’s youth will live in Africa, while the population in Europe will continue to age and decline. It is in the developing economies that the future profile of global higher education will be defined, and worldwide higher education will transition from an elitist approach toward more flexible access models.

The international-development activities of established higher education institutions have historically included foci on food production and education that was weighted toward elementary and secondary systems. The globalisation of higher education in response to the demands of the knowledge economy provide an obligation to address higher education imbalances in supply and demand, such as in Africa.

Global higher education capacity and speed of change

With global growth in capacity and quality, the conditions for competition and collaboration across systems and institutions also strengthen. Higher education must be nimble to respond to constant change and up-to-date knowledge and be highly competitive on a global scale and integrate technology. This is also the case for internationalisation content, perspective, pedagogy and programmes.


Micro- or nano-credentialing in higher education, designed for short-time certificates or badges that focus on specific knowledge or skill areas, is gaining popularity as efficient and effective contributions to knowledge and skills development. This flexibility also feeds the potential for multiple cross-border opportunities to build student portfolios, accessing the best sources of expertise from a global higher education network.


The use of technology in higher education will strengthen internationalisation. It will reshape pedagogy, provide access to globally diverse content for learning and scholarship and expand support for cross-border teams of learning through virtual environments. The physical mobility of people will be supplemented considerably by the movement of minds and ideas across borders in virtual meeting rooms and virtual pathways of access.

Governments, universities and internationalisation

Recent data from the World Bank shows that fostering internationalisation is ranked in the lowest quartile among 13 higher education priorities of governments. While it is helpful when governments support internationalisation through legislation, regulation and funding, little in reality happens unless higher education institutions themselves take the initiative to embrace the need to change and internationalise their missions, and highlight its importance for a more relevant higher education.

Those who respond to change survive

Internationalisation is more of an imperative now and for the future than it has been at any time in the past. But so is the need for it to change to meet the challenges presented by evolving contexts and the players within them.

In this we are reminded of Charles Darwin’s conclusion: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Are we prepared to change higher education and its approach to internationalisation?

John K Hudzik is chair of the NAFSA Senior Fellows for Internationalisation and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, United States; Bernhard Streitwieser is assistant professor of international education at the George Washington University, United States, and UNESCO co-chair in international education for development; Francisco Marmolejo is the World Bank’s global lead of tertiary education, and since July 2016 he also serves as the lead education specialist for India, based in Delhi.