What contribution has internationalisation made to HE?

Over the past 25 years, internationalisation has evolved from a marginal and minor component to a global, strategic and mainstream factor in higher education. Having been active participants in and analysts of that evolution, it seems appropriate to ask ourselves the questions: Where have we come from and where are we going?

In 1995, we co-wrote “Strategies for Internationalisation of Higher Education: Historical and Conceptual Perspectives” as the introductory chapter of what can be considered the first comparative international study on internationalisation strategies, building on a small number of previous studies emanating primarily from American and European sources.

Since then, while the meanings, rationales and approaches to internationalisation have evolved, as has the context in which it is taking place, the foundation for the study of internationalisation has not substantively changed. Internationalisation has become a very broad and varied concept, including many new rationales, approaches and strategies in different and constantly changing contexts.

It is revealing to see how the terminology used to describe the international dimension of higher education has evolved over the past five decades.

Who would have guessed in the past century – when the emphasis was on scholarships for foreign students, international development projects and area studies – that we would today be discussing new developments such as branding, international programmes and provider mobility, global citizenship, internationalisation at home, MOOCs, global rankings, knowledge diplomacy, world-class universities, cultural homogenisation, franchising and joint and double degree programmes?

International education has been a term used commonly throughout the years – and is still preferred in many countries.

Nationalism and isolationism are not new

Rereading our 1995 chapter, it is striking that the current anti-global, anti-immigration and inward-looking political climate in different parts of the world was already announcing itself at that time: “The danger of isolationism, racism and monoculturalism is a threatening cloud hanging over the present interest in internationalisation of higher education.”

That cloud has only become bigger and more threatening since, and may define present and future challenges of internationalisation more than ever.

We also referred to Clark Kerr’s analysis of the “partial convergence” of the cosmopolitan university. Did the 20th century indeed become, as he stated, more universal? It may seem so, but the international dimensions of higher education today may have become too disconnected from the local context.

Internationalisation is broader than undergraduate mobility

In the discourse and study of internationalisation, a great deal of attention has been paid to all modes of international academic mobility – people, programmes, providers, policies and projects – but not enough has been paid to the internationalisation of graduate education and research, including international co-authorship and other international research benchmarks.

Research has become more complex in recent years. It requires, and is distinguished by, more international collaboration than in the past, and it is increasingly competitive in nature. National and institutional needs to acquire academic talent are urgent and processes around issues such as the awarding of patents and knowledge transfer require more support than ever.

Growth in international research funding, patents, publications and citations requires the development of internationalised, or globalised, research teams. Bibliometric analysis yields evidence of increasing collaboration within the international scientific community. The generation of new knowledge through the production and application of research has introduced the notion of international education and research as a form of soft power.

The use of knowledge as power is a development requiring serious reflection because soft power is characterised by competitiveness, dominance and self-interest. An alternative to the power paradigm is the framework of diplomacy.

Knowledge diplomacy involves the contribution that education and knowledge creation, sharing and use make to international relations and engagement. But knowledge diplomacy should be seen as a reciprocal process. Mutual benefits and a two-way exchange are therefore essential to the concept of international education and research as a tool of knowledge diplomacy.

In short, knowledge sharing and mutual benefits are fundamental to the understanding and operationalisation of knowledge diplomacy.

Is internationalisation really comprehensive?

There is no doubt that internationalisation has come of age. No longer is it an ad hoc or marginalised part of the higher education landscape. University strategic plans, national policy statements, regionalisation initiatives, international declarations and academic articles all indicate the centrality of internationalisation in the world of higher education.

The popularity of the phrase ‘comprehensive internationalisation’ does not reflect widespread reality, however. For most institutions around the world, internationalisation is still characterised by a collection of fragmented and unrelated activities.

Meanwhile, the increasing commodification of higher education remains primarily oriented toward reaching targets without a debate on potential risks and ethical consequences. Yet, there is increased awareness that the notion of ‘internationalisation’ not only touches on relations between nations, but even more so on the relations between cultures and between realities at the global and local levels.

Economic and political rationales are increasingly the key drivers for national policies related to the internationalisation of higher education, while academic and social/ cultural motivations are not increasing in importance at the same rate. Because of the more interdependent and connected world in which we live, this imbalance must be addressed and recalibrated.

Some fundamental questions

It may behove us to look back at the past 20 or 30 years of internationalisation and ask ourselves some questions. Has international higher education lived up to our expectations and its potential? What have been the values that have guided it through the information and communication revolution; the unprecedented mobility of people, ideas and technology; the clash of cultures; and the periods of economic booms and busts? What have we learned from the past that will guide us into the future?

Is the strong appeal for internationalisation of the curriculum, international and intercultural learning outcomes and global citizenship to be perceived as a return to the former days of cooperation and exchange, or a call for a more responsible process of internationalisation in reaction to the current political climate and the increased commercialisation of internationalisation?

Who could have forecasted that internationalisation would transform from what has been traditionally considered a process based on values of cooperation, partnership, exchange, mutual benefits and capacity building to one that is increasingly characterised by competition, commercialisation, self-interest and status building?

As we look backward and forward, it is thus important to ask, what are the core principles and values underpinning internationalisation of higher education that in 10 or 20 years from now will make us look back and be proud of the track record and contribution that international higher education has made to the more interdependent world we live in, the next generation of citizens and the bottom billion people living in poverty on our planet?

Jane Knight is adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. Email: jane.knight@ Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. Email: This essay is based on the preface of the book The Future Agenda for Internationalization in Higher Education, edited by Douglas Proctor and Laura E Rumbley (Routledge, 2018). This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.

Hans de Wit has issued a call to readers and contributors to University World News to send him their essays of between 800 and 1,200 words on what went well and what went wrong in internationalisation of higher education over the past 25 years. He will select one essay to be published by University World News and at the end of 2019, will bring all these essays together in a book.