Students: the missing voices in internationalisation

Paradoxically, international student mobility is the most visible aspect of internationalisation while students’ voices are the least heard in internationalisation-related discourses.

To put this in context, over the past three decades, the internationalisation of higher education has attracted the interest of scholars and policy-makers at different levels: global, supra-national (for example, the OECD), national and institutional. The key aspects of internationalisation that attract the most attention relate to learning in international contexts, interculturality and mobility.

However, despite much discussion about the growing numbers of mobile students, up to five million in 2016, there is little insight into the perspectives of the students who are beneficiaries of internationalisation.

The interest in student mobility is largely driven by economic benefits. Competition as a driver of internationalisation within a neoliberal marketised higher education agenda is well documented in the literature.

In a recent blog titled ‘Towards inclusive intercultural learning for all’, Betty Leask, Elspeth Jones and Hans de Wit acknowledge that “we are still far away from any form of internationalisation that is inclusive and accessible rather than elitist and exclusive”. They recognise the need to include diverse stakeholders in (re)framing internationalisation discourses.

In another blog by Fiona Hunter, Elspeth Jones and Hans de Wit titled ‘The staff who are overlooked in internationalisation’, the authors argue that a focus on the organisational process of internationalisation designed and implemented by leadership and international officers is no longer enough. They point to the important roles of academics and administrators in the internationalisation process in terms of curriculum and delivery.

They therefore reiterate the need to give attention to the roles and the training needs of both academic and administrative staff, saying they are essential for the future of internationalisation.

While these two articles point to the urgent need for a comprehensive change in internationalisation, there is yet another missing aspect to the discussion – students’ voices.

International students’ motivation

Based on migration studies in the 1960s, international students’ motivation and decision-making have been discussed mainly within a framework that describes a lack of access to tertiary education at home (push factor) and student motivation to study abroad for a quality education (pull factor).

Despite its utility, the value of this model to explain more recent trends in an internationalised higher education has been questioned, for example, for students studying in branch campuses.

Furthermore, the push-pull model could be further interrogated in terms of its lack of distinction between a lack of access to undergraduate or to postgraduate study. This is especially important given that, according to the OECD’s latest Education at a Glance report (2018), currently more international students study at a postgraduate rather than undergraduate level of study.

Students' rationale for internationalisation

My recent PhD research explored international students’ motivations for studying on a one-year masters in the United Kingdom. The findings revealed four different rationales for studying abroad: educational, experiential, economic and aspirational.

Two themes emanated from the findings related to the educational rationale.

First, students were interested in the programme content in terms of the quality of teaching and practical work embedded in the courses. Though some authors, based mainly on studies conducted in Australia, have emphasised the importance of work integrated learning (WIL) to international students, the level of embedding this into institutional policy remains to be seen.

The second theme relates to programme accessibility. A programme taught in the English language was important to all the students as a result of monolingualism or because they wanted to improve their language proficiency. This reflects the importance of English as the lingua franca in international higher education.

The experiential rationale relates to the aims of the students to have a different experience of studying and living outside their home context. The students considered this to be a very important factor that would expand their horizons in a global context.

Importantly, they were seeking opportunities not only to learn but to share their own knowledge in an international context. This makes it important to recognise students’ agency in internationalisation discourses and processes.

The economic rationale has two sides.

First, the students described the importance of securing financial support to study abroad. In contrast, the economic narrative of internationalisation focuses on the benefit of recruiting high fee-paying international students for top-destination countries. The need to provide financial support for international students is inevitably neglected as internationalisation processes are hardly ever seen through the lens of the students.

The second aspect of the economic rationale relates to students’ perceptions of the benefits of studying abroad. The students recognised the value of an international postgraduate degree as a key requirement to prepare themselves for working and living in a global world. They used words like ‘standing out in the labour market’. This fits with the connections made between higher education and human capital.

However, despite anecdotal evidence and research suggesting that employers value international education, empirical evidence is hard to find in terms of causal links between studying abroad and enhanced employment prospects.

Lastly, the aspirational rationale relates to students’ aims to attain a leadership position in the host country and on their return back home. Some aspirations seemed modest, such as having the opportunity to be a group leader among international classmates.

Others aspired to lead reform in their society based on what they have learned abroad in class and outside university. A few aspired to make impact at a global level. For all of them, the international environment provided an opportunity to share and develop their ideas.

More than just a degree

These findings show that the masters entailed much more than just obtaining a degree. The intrinsic and practical benefits of the masters degree were intertwined. This was related to the students’ sense of professional and personal development.

The main perception among scholars is that internationalisation discourses are predominantly about mobility. However, the question is mobility from whose perspective? Student mobility viewed through an organisational lens does not capture mobile students’ viewpoint.

As other authors have argued, there is a need for an inclusive vision of internationalisation which recognises the views of all stakeholders – policy-makers, academic and administrative staff and students. The findings from my research contribute to the current discussion by providing some evidence towards conceptualising mobile students’ rationales for internationalisation.

Omolabake Fakunle is a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and winner of the Estelle Brisard Award at the Scottish Educational Research Association Conference 2018, Scotland, United Kingdom. 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 internationalisation of higher education over the past 25 years. This is one of the essays he has received. 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.