Why the future is bright for internationalisation

There is no denying the zeitgeist that a golden age in the internationalisation of higher education has ended. Evidence suggests that the quality of our efforts have not matched the quantity of attention and resources devoted to them, prompting many to question internationalisation’s value and purpose.

Leaders are faced with an existential dilemma, asking:

  • • What can be done to change disappointing outcomes?
  • • How should we do things differently?
  • • Why do we internationalise anyway?

If this combination of ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Simon Sinek’s 2009 bestseller, Start With Why. These questions comprise Sinek’s “golden circle”, the principles people and organisations use to guide their actions, connect with others, facilitate buy-in and produce results.

I couldn’t help but think of the golden circle while reading Karin Fischer’s 28 March cover story in the the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How international education’s golden age lost its sheen”.

Fischer concluded that internationalisation’s failures stem from a crisis of ‘why’: “Too often, colleges’ eager embrace lacked attention to the basics, leaving it feeling more like an add-on, an extra, a thing to be handled by the office with ‘international’ on the door. Commitment, on campus and off, could be shallow. It was a nice thing to do, yes, but rarely fundamental.”

I am one who believes that internationalisation is not a nice thing to do. Internationalisation is something we must do. What follows is an argument for why this is so.

Why internationalise

For Sinek, ‘why’ is a values proposition. It is the “purpose, cause or belief” that gives rise to what you do and how you do it. It is the reason your work exists.

Fischer found that many view internationalisation as little more than a justification for someone else’s job or office. Those who think this way naturally question its return on investment.

But the work of internationalisation is not self-reflexive. We do not internationalise for its own sake. We engage in cross-national research and teaching partnerships, facilitate global learning at home and support student and faculty mobility in order to fulfil higher education’s fundamental purpose, the production and exchange of new knowledge about the world and its inhabitants.

This purpose is served when diverse ideas and perspectives are brought together in a collaborative relationship. Through social negotiation, people can combine parts of any number of different ideas to produce a whole new set of ideas. Faculty and students within institutions engage in this process daily – internationalisation takes it to a cross-national scale.

Under the right conditions, internationalisation significantly increases interactions among diverse people, ideas and perspectives, leading to enhanced knowledge production and the fulfilment of higher education’s fundamental purpose.

What is internationalisation?

Aligning internationalisation’s ‘why’ with that of higher education affects how we define the term and its conditions. One of the most oft-cited definitions delineates that institutions, nations and sectors internationalise when they integrate, as Jane Knight argues, “an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education”.

Hans de Wit and Fiona Hunter offer an update, specifying that internationalisation should enable institutions to “enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff and to make a meaningful contribution to society”.

Though these definitions clarify that internationalisation is an intentional, multidimensional and inclusive process realised differently across nations and contexts, they can be misinterpreted as describing a predominantly self-serving phenomenon. Unilateralism is antithetical to knowledge creation; we need a definition grounded in multilateralism and collaboration.

We can find it in a 2011 working paper authored by Gabriel Hawawini, the former dean of INSEAD. Hawawini foregrounds reciprocation and mutual benefit, defining internationalisation as the work of integrating “the institution into the emerging global knowledge and learning network”.

This process “should be outward-looking rather than inward-looking, emphasising the institution’s capacity and ability to become an integral part of the world’s knowledge and learning ‘ecosystem’ not only to benefit from it but also to contribute to its development”.

By valuing “complementary expertise and symbiotic relationships”, internationalised institutions evolve and contribute to a global knowledge network whose product is greater than the sum of its parts.

How we internationalise

The golden age’s gold standard was the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Model for Comprehensive Internationalization. It addressed Knight’s definition, detailing which components of the institution’s mission, functions and delivery should incorporate international, intercultural or global dimensions.

The ACE model usefully maps the spaces and places within which the institution may support internationalisation’s ‘why’ and ‘what’. But it does not go far enough in guiding ‘how’ to do so because it addresses neither the process of creating new knowledge nor methods for developing collaborative relationships.

Until now, more often than not, leaders have determined whether and how to internationalise by asking “What do we have to gain from this?” Hawawini does not ask leaders to abandon their pursuit of fiscal and functional sustainability, but he does prompt us to reconsider who is meant by “we”.

If internationalisation is to fulfil higher education’s purpose, it must advance the welfare of students, faculty and communities served by our own institution and those served by our international partners. Contributions to the world’s knowledge creation ecosystem should lead to ever-expanding circles of wellbeing, with benefits extending to people and the planet beyond our institutions’ borders.

In this sense, internationalisation is a collective venture. It involves a network of constructive partnerships that honour diverse contributors’ motivations, positively impact multiple bottom lines and generate opportunities for knowledge exchange and production that would not be possible otherwise.

For guidance concerning how to do this, we need a new model, one that emphasises values as much as value-add. Leaders can develop productive relationships within the global teaching, learning and research ecosystem by focusing their efforts on:

  • • Communicating: Exchanging detailed information about distinctive institutional goals and diverse student, faculty and community needs and perspectives.

  • • Coordinating: Aligning common purposes and values while allowing for different preferences and practices.

  • • Complementing: Designing structures and pedagogies that cultivate and support the unique contributions that all institutions, faculty and students are capable of making to the world’s knowledge production network.

  • • Collaborating: Determining common aims and pursuits and co-constructing novel ways for people to interact so that they may co-create new ideas and solutions.

The next great age of internationalisation

While signs point to the need to refocus internationalisation’s ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ on collaborative knowledge exchange and production, there are strong signals that the world is ready for this change and that it may already be underway.

On 1 April, three days after Fischer’s article was published, Times Higher Education released new University Impact Ranking metrics assessing institutions’ influence on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including partnerships for reaching the goals.

Attention and financial support for collaborative online international learning and virtual exchange is steadily increasing across the world.

The movement for open science is gaining steam; global university networks are proliferating and diversifying; and organisations such as Advance HE are encouraging a global dialogue on promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education instruction and leadership.

Though the golden age has passed, a new future is upon us – and it is bright.

Stephanie Doscher is director of the Office of Global Learning Initiatives, Florida International University, United States.

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.