Internationalisation of the curriculum comes of age

Hans de Wit’s recent blog on successes and failures in internationalisation in higher education inspired us to take stock of internationalisation of the curriculum.

Interest in internationalising the curriculum in terms of global citizenship education has increased in parallel with the employability agenda. It now sits alongside the financial and political drivers of international education and questions the principles and values of the latter.

Currently eight discourses of international education can be identified co-existing around the world and operate at different levels in something resembling the classic dynamic spiral of business theory. As time passes, different countries enter the spiral in different places and progress in different ways, driven by their unique political, economic and social environments.

As different levels achieve prominence they provide a fertile source of alarmist newspaper reports, but all levels coexist and survive. Looking at the big picture, there is a clear trajectory, which exists because its alternatives are unthinkable in terms of our own survival.

A dynamic spiral

Using the history of internationalisation in the United Kingdom we can illustrate the eight narrative layers of the dynamic spiral:
  • Layer 1: Recruiting international students: At the base level is economics – in a world where many universities face increasing domestic student numbers, decreasing government subsidies and capped fees, recruiting international students is good business.

  • Layer 2: Teaching international students: Charging high fees to migrant international learners helps subsidise higher education but creates pedagogic problems for teachers whose curricula are based on local culture and educational practices. Naturally, teachers try to help these incomers cope with their ‘cultural deficit’, first by remedial teaching and later by reducing their own teaching’s reliance on the hidden curriculum of local knowledge and tradition.

  • Layer 3: Corporatisation: This relates to growing the international enterprise university through the competitive recruitment of international staff and students. With increasing financial independence, universities reimagine themselves as higher education corporations. Here, narratives describe education as a business, often a multinational business, with students as customers and brands that have to be built and protected.

  • Layer 4: Compliance: Standards are set by international accreditation agencies, which concerns quality control and standardisation through the international accreditation of degrees, but also abets the preservation of elite university ‘brands’ and the discouragement of rivals.

  • Layer 5: The ‘internationalisation at home’ movement: This involves internationalisation of the curriculum for all learners, especially local learners, as preparation for them to be able to operate in a cosmopolitan world of work, in a multicultural world. This provides the context for today’s ‘global employability’ agenda. However, ultimately, internationalisation at home fuels layer 6.

  • Layer 6: The ‘education for global citizenship’ movement: This expands internationalisation into the realms of personal responsibility and sustainability concerns.

  • Layer 7: Connected e-learning: This emerges from the digital internet revolution which has created a global space for all education that further diminishes the status of local knowledge and increases isolation from the outside world.

  • Layer 8: Education for planetary, whole-earth consciousness: This focuses on the global environmental and social crisis and the fundamental need for peace. Enacting planetary consciousness creates important priorities in everyday life and work that concern lifestyle choices, ethics and the recognition of personal responsibility.
Of course, spiral dynamics theory suggests that, only from these upper layers, can the whole spiral be seen and understood. However, what this schema makes clear is that, while progression up the spiral should be encouraged, occasional regression, often associated with stress, should also be expected.

It should not be necessary to describe the problems that face our world and our future – our self-created environmental degradation, our nasty tribal habit of creating an ‘us’ to exclude a ‘them’ that can be abused, the painfully primitive short-termism that ignores the future well-being of our children.

Global citizenship, which involves enacting personal responsibilities and conative self-identification with the whole world and all of its creatures rather than some small part, is both the way and apex goal of internationalisation of the curriculum.

While it is comforting that graduates have worthwhile jobs, they also need other attributes – most notably emotional intelligence, empathy and the ability to care about the wider consequences of their actions.

Current international politics illustrates well why the world needs its graduates to be global citizens or, if you prefer, active, socially responsible, cosmopolitan students with a sound moral and ethical compass.

The reversion to nationalism – not in terms of pride in one’s culture and country but in terms of separation, building walls, intolerance, non-cooperation, mistrust and constantly looking at the past, rather than embracing our interdependence, enjoying diversity, being tolerant, co-operative, collaborative, trusting and searching for a better future for everyone – is many steps backwards for humanity.

Ultimately, internationalisation is about creating moral cosmopolitans.

Global citizenship

Education helps learners recognise that humans are stronger and happier when they work together, and weaker and more destructive when they divide themselves into opposing factions on whatever basis.

It also helps learners recognise that the human impact on the world is now so great that the small actions that we take as individuals, when multiplied billions of times, be it as small as throwing away a plastic bottle, threaten the well-being of our whole habitat.

Finally, it is about accepting personal responsibilities towards the world and acting accordingly.

As citizens of the world, each one of us has rights, no doubt, but also a personal responsibility not to make the planet less habitable for future generations.

So, ultimately, internationalisation is about promoting peace through compassionate understanding, about fostering sustainability through promoting ways of living that do not damage the world’s future well-being and it is about recognition of the rights of future generations in both the human and not-human living world. This is survival-based common sense, not ‘idealism’.

Of course, it’s nice that graduates can get good jobs too, but such concerns are one reason that so many of the processes of internationalisation operating in today’s higher education seem backward, narrow, shallow and short-sighted. At its best, it should be remembered, internationalisation of the curriculum, under whatever nomenclature, has a higher purpose that promotes the welfare of the future world and tackles its most serious problems.

Valerie Clifford works at the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom. Valerie does research in internationalisation of the curriculum for global citizenship. Professor Martin Haigh is emeritus professor of geography, department of social sciences, Oxford Brookes University. This article is a response to a call by Hans de Wit to readers and contributors to University World News to send him their essays of between 800 and 1,200 words on what has gone well and what has gone wrong in internationalisation of higher education over the past 25 years. All selected essays will be brought together in a book next year. Email: