Towards inclusive intercultural learning for all

“Study the past if you would define the future,” Confucius said.

Today we increasingly hear of the importance of providing international and intercultural learning experiences for all students. And there is growing recognition that it is both impractical and unwise to focus on mobility as the primary means of developing intercultural awareness. In this blog we briefly consider the past and the present in an attempt to influence, if not ‘define’, the future.

In the past 25 years the drivers for internationalisation of higher education have varied according to country and region. For example, recruitment of students in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia differed from, say, continental Europe, where the emphasis was on credit mobility as part of the home degree.

Drivers, in the first case, were funding cuts to universities and in the second, the availability of significant funding through the Erasmus programme to support student and staff mobility. Other drivers have been development cooperation or national policies about incoming migration.

All of these drivers and others have contributed to steady increases in mobility numbers over the past two decades. Today, even countries that in the past were highly critical of others involved in student recruitment for financial gain have become more focused on economic rationales.

At the same time, scholars and students in some parts of the world have felt excluded and disadvantaged by such trends. These voices, more prominent in recent years, are reflected in wider debates on subjects such as decolonisation and de-Westernisation of curriculum.

Intercultural learning

In parallel, a discourse focused on internationalisation as international and intercultural learning for all students has emerged.

The term internationalisation of the curriculum was coined in the mid-1990s, defined initially by the OECD as being primarily concerned with content, but also with preparing domestic and foreign students for their social and professional lives in an increasingly multicultural local context.

This led to a rather shallow interpretation of both curriculum and internationalisation as, for example, double degrees, the study of foreign languages, teaching in the English language and optional international and-or comparative education courses in a programme of study.

Towards the end of the 1990s, ‘internationalisation at home’ emerged as a pragmatic response to a local problem. As a new university, Malmö University in Sweden had no international partners and so could not offer mobility programmes. Yet, located in a culturally diverse city, they were able to focus on internationalisation ‘at home’, which included connecting students at home with diversity in the local community.

This idea was picked up with enthusiasm by those who saw mobility as having equity issues in that the majority of students would never benefit.

Meanwhile, principally in Australia and the UK, claims from government and university leaders that the presence of international students on campus would internationalise student learning were counterbalanced by evidence showing otherwise.

The concept of ‘internationalisation of the curriculum’ was further developed in response, focusing more sharply on internationalising the learning outcomes of all students in a programme.

The development of international perspectives and intercultural skills was connected with the graduate attributes agenda in Australia, graduate attributes being the so-called ‘soft skills’ such as communication, problem-solving and team work.

Concurrently, in the United States, internationalisation abroad emphasised study abroad as part of the home degree and internationalisation at home focused on recruiting international students.

The two approaches were isolated from each other, fragmented and lacking integration and comprehensiveness, even though the notion of ‘comprehensive internationalisation’ emerged in that country, with lip service being paid to it in institutional policies and plans.

Two models, similar outcomes

In other words, both models (short-term mobility and international student recruitment) were inadequate as the primary means of internationalising learning for all students.

Yet in each case relatively similar responses were stimulated – internationalisation at home and internationalisation of the curriculum – the former focusing initially on engagement with the local community and the latter on interaction between international and domestic students.

Unsurprisingly, international collaborations between those involved in enacting the two concepts resulted in them developing similar characteristics to the point where, more than two decades on, they have converged and are effectively one and the same.

Both are focused on international and intercultural learning for all students within a programme or institution. Both have received some recognition in institutional, national and supranational policies.

Both acknowledge the added value of mobility within a broader learning programme focused on the development of international and intercultural learning within core studies. Both have the potential to grow in importance in today’s increasingly connected yet divided world.

However, the reality is that internationalisation is still predominantly perceived in most countries as being primarily about mobility. The implementation of ‘internationalisation of the curriculum at home’ appears to be struggling to move beyond good intentions and isolated examples of good practice.

We are still far away from any form of internationalisation that is inclusive and accessible rather than elitist and exclusive.

The extended definition of internationalisation in the European Parliament study, focusing on all students and staff and making a meaningful contribution to society, offers a way forward by placing emphasis on motivation and values-based intentions. However, it still leaves us with the question of how we make this revised definition a reality.

Given today’s global political landscape, this task assumes a new sense of urgency, reminding us of the need to shift the focus from input and output towards outcomes.

Inclusion and intercultural learning

In our view, urgent attention is needed to the following as a minimum:
  • • We must, as scholars and practitioners, not only continue but also escalate our efforts at working together across disciplines, professional areas and national boundaries as well as within universities.

  • • We must engage more with stakeholder groups beyond the academy, striving towards the common goal of creating a better, more equal and fairer world.

  • • We must integrate internationalisation with other agendas – disciplinary, professional, institutional, national and regional – which are also focused on improving the quality of education and research for all students. Internationalisation of the curriculum, teaching, learning and service should not operate in a vacuum.

  • • We must place emphasis on enhancing the quality of education and research for all students and staff in all parts of the world. This requires integrated policy and strategy as well as cooperation and partnership within and between institutions across the globe.

Over the past 25 years national and economic policies and realities, as well as ideological positions, including cosmopolitanism, neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism, have influenced the development of internationalisation in different ways across and within regions.

Internationalisation of higher education can only make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the world if the discourse reflected in the theme of this article, ‘working towards inclusive international and intercultural learning for all’, means that we become more respectful of diverse contexts, agendas and perspectives on a global scale.

Betty Leask is emerita professor of internationalisation at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and visiting professor at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. Email: Elspeth Jones is emerita professor of the internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Beckett University, United Kingdom, and series editor of Internationalization in Higher Education (Routledge). Email: Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, US. Email:

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 the 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.