What happened to international-isation of the curriculum?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ends with Button forgetting all he had achieved throughout his life and him finally blinking out of existence. Is this an appropriate metaphor to describe what has happened to the internationalisation of the curriculum (IoC) agenda in Australia’s higher education sector?

We were forced to consider this question recently when asked about the progress of IoC in Australian universities by our Brazilian colleague (Carla Camargo Cassol).

Indeed, underpinning her decision to conduct research on the progress of IoC in Australian universities as a participant in the Australian Academy of Science Australia-Americas PhD Research Internship Program was her belief that universities in Brazil have much to learn from their Australian counterparts. The question is, ‘what can they learn and how has IoC progressed in Australia?’

IoC, it seems, has all but disappeared as an educational priority in Australian universities. Along with its demise, we are seeing the loss of the expertise, resources and knowledge acquired during the decade or so when IoC held our strategic attention. Much like Button, IoC is blinking out of existence.

Moving from an international to global agenda

Once Australian universities and academics were at the forefront of IoC. This is now challenged. From 2005 to 2015, they contributed significantly to the growing body of conceptual, theoretical and practical literature on IoC. Universities across Australia promoted the importance of IoC in their strategic internationalisation and teaching and learning plans and on their institutional websites.

The Australian government, through its Australian Universities Quality Agency, included IoC as a theme in its quality audit regime and the now defunct Office for Learning and Teaching funded research and development projects focused on IoC.

Numerous universities across Australia adopted the 2009 Leask definition of IoC as ‘the incorporation of an international and intercultural dimension into the content of the curriculum as well as the teaching and learning arrangements and support services of a programme of study’.

Leask’s definition emphasised the importance of periodic, critical review of the curriculum and reflection on the impact of teaching and assessment practices on student learning. However, Australian universities never fully adopted a systematic, whole-of-university approach to IoC, nor did they adequately fund and resource its implementation.

We and others argued that, in spite of the emphasis placed on IoC in institutional and government policy, much more had to be done to shift IoC from rhetoric into practice. That warning is now irrelevant. With a change in government, funding cuts, the abolition of the Office for Learning and Teaching and a refocusing of quality audit practices through the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the IoC agenda has stalled.

As we observed previously in University World News, the release of the long-awaited Australian National Strategy for International Education 2025 in 2016 firmly established Australia’s engagement in international education as an economic enterprise. The combined result of these changes is an almost complete loss of institutional will to pursue IoC in Australian universities.

In order to better understand how IoC has progressed, we conducted a review of Australian university websites for ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’. Starting with a simple Google search only four hits were returned. Of these four, only two elaborated on IoC: Flinders University and Southern Cross University.

The Flinders’ webpage provides a rationale for academic staff to engage in IoC premised on employability, arguing that graduates joining the “globalised workforce are likely to work in multinational teams in varied locations; while graduates remaining in Australia will operate in a multicultural setting… .” Here the emphasis is on human capital development, largely consistent with the neo-liberal focus on employability and work-readiness.

The Southern Cross University webpage defines IoC as involving “integrating global, international and multicultural dimensions into university learning”.

Given the considerable attention dedicated to IoC across the Australian higher education sector for over a decade, this result is disappointing.

We then reviewed the most recent university strategic plans and related documents for the 14 universities that participated in Professor Betty Leask’s 2009 Australian Office for Learning and Teaching National Fellowship, ‘Internationalisation of the Curriculum in Action’. Out of this fellowship Leask developed her IoC conceptual framework and process and supporting website.

Here too, we found no substantive evidence of IoC constituting an educational priority or focus. In stark contrast to previous versions of the 14 universities’ strategic documents over the past decade, there are no explicit references to IoC among these documents.

Interestingly, however, we did find signs that the discourse may be shifting rather than disappearing. Now, terms linked to internationalisation emphasise the importance of student and institutional global outlook, capability and disposition.

Commonly employed terms we identified included: ‘global capable’, ‘global citizen/citizenship’, ‘global awareness/consciousness’, ‘global responsibility’ and ‘global learning’.

Given the rise in graduate unemployment or under-employment in many countries, including Australia, perhaps it is not surprising to find that universities and their students are focused on employability.

The curious case of IoC in Australia

Within the Australian context IoC is now largely subsumed within the broader context of the emerging ‘global’ nomenclature as this relates to the curriculum design and development and internationalisation. This also means that IoC as an explicit focus, like Benjamin Button, is fading with maturity.

The lessons, resources and understandings cultivated over decades are now losing their relevance in a sector focused on course level learning outcomes linked to employability and global graduate capabilities and attributes.

Australian policy-makers and university leaders are now focused on the marketability of their product – a global education and, with that, increased employability potential for graduates entering the workforce.

In spite of this waning interest in IoC in Australia, some of us are exploring how we might engage with – and shape – the current discourse of ‘global employability’ so that the aspirations, values and practices of IoC continue to inform our teaching and learning. Meanwhile, countries such as Brazil and others now turning their attention to IoC as a relatively new concept could learn much from the Australian experience.

Craig Whitsed is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin University, Australia. Wendy Green is adjunct senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Carla Camargo Cassol is internationalisation coordinator at Senac, Brazil.