Defining internationalisation – Intention versus coercion

Many authorities have aspired to provide an all-encompassing definition for the complex term 'internationalisation' as it relates to higher education. The attempt at such a definition by Professor Hans de Wit* and his colleague Fiona Hunter (2015) falls short in capturing reality, particularly in the Global South.

At the joint St Mary’s University’s 17th Conference and the second Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America (HEFAALA) symposium of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 25 to 27 July 2019, De Wit, who is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, expounded a definition of internationalisation which spurred considerable debate.

According to De Wit and Hunter (2015), internationalisation of higher education is defined as “the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society”.

I maintain that internationalisation as regards the Global South, particularly Africa, is far from being an intentional process. In an edited book entitled African Higher Education in the International Dimension, published over a decade ago now, I argued that African higher education is the most internationalined system in the world – not by participation but by omission.

“As the weakest global higher education system, it relies heavily on the discourses, paradigms and parameters set by others, rendering it vulnerable to global whims and idiosyncrasies. African higher education assumes the position of the most internationalised systems by being the least internationally engaged.”

Africa produces a fraction of the world’s global knowledge – and the most generous statistics put such contribution at 2%. In so doing, the continent relies heavily on the knowledge produced by others. The rest of the Global South also falls into this unenviable category.

Most books, journals, databases, and information and data are produced in the Global North. Even the format and style of intellectual writings and academic communication refer to institutions in the north – American Psychological Association (APA), Harvard Style, Modern Language Association (of America) – demanding that every college student from virtually anywhere in the world follows these international norms.

Thus I argue that, in participating in the massive consumption of these products and services while staunchly, but helplessly, adhering to the international academic and scholastic norms and values, universities in the Global South are not willing parties. Neither is the process of consumption by them intentional.

Intention vs coercion

For an institution to be more globally visible or, better still, globally appealing, it ought to raise its profile through a number of intentional activities rather than through coercion or under duress. Institutional partnerships are often sought among equals and this means that institutions maintain a certain level of international standing through a multitude of relevant activities – intentional or otherwise.

The increasingly popular, but frequently criticised, institutional rankings, which invariably favour the Global North, have pushed the internationalisation pendulum from intention to coercion. For instance, institutions around the world – including those in Africa – are known to hire companies increasingly to raise their standing in the rankings. This author has once advised a major African university to de-commission such an exercise which would cost substantial fees.

One key aspect of internationalisation is the choice of a language for academic and scholarly communication. Virtually all countries with a colonial history continue to keep the language of their colonialists for their academic and scholarship business. This is not by choice (thus not intentional) but de facto a consequence of history.

In a very few minority countries which set out to change this burden of history, the process has been fraught with contestation – between those in favour and those against change. Thus the internationalisation phenomenon is not only intentional, but fraught with contestation as well.

In the last several years, South Africa has been the scene of an animated dialogue on decolonisation – largely in harsh reaction to internationalisation (and globalisation). While our study on decolonisation has discovered half a dozen understandings of its meaning, it is obvious that the reaction against it indicates that the intentionality of things is, if anything, unanimous.

Cooperation vs competition

Institutional cooperation as well as competition is becoming an everyday reality of the internationalisation phenomenon. For instance, as institutions are engaging in serious competition for increasingly limited grants around the world, they also cooperate in a number of ways to address grand challenges. Thus, the two features of internationalisation – which are cooperation (as innocent as it sounds) and competition (as harsh as it sounds) – may not be described simply as intentional occurrences, as ascribed in the definition.

Even the idea of internationalisation at home – as innocuous as it sounds – is not that fully intentional, after all.

For instance the re-curriculation of academic programmes, in reaction to and interest in the growing global realities of institutional cooperation and competition, is not an intentional process with unanimous voices.

It may be true that the current wave of competition – or to be particular, the zeal to appear on the league tables of rankings – has contributed to a level of consciousness that has spurred more active “intentional” aspects of things. But these cannot be construed as intentional alone as these intentions are catalysed by pressure to do things that are not necessarily within the realm of burning institutional needs; nor are they typically in the respective institutional strategic plans.


It is true that while some institutions are vigorously pursuing aspects of internationalisation intentionally, many others are doing so under coercion and contestation. It is my view therefore that this definition of internationalisation needs to be further reconsidered to accommodate the underlying and complex realities of those in the Global South.

In the book referred to earlier, we argued that: “In the higher education landscape, the term ‘internationalisation’ means so many things to so many people. Perhaps few other terms in higher education are as diverse and as rich as ‘internationalisation’. When students travel to study abroad, faculty are engaged in collaborative research and publishing, or a university signs a memorandum of understanding with foreign institutional or development partners, it is called internationalisation.

"When satellite campuses or franchise private providers are established in a new locale or when a curriculum with an eye on international issues is developed, or even when an institution or a country re-evaluates the mode of instructional delivery, ‘internationalisation’ is often invoked as motive and rationale. When countries work toward a common frame of reference such as harmonising credentials, or attract foreign faculty to their campuses, or even evaluate the essence of brain drain, they still talk about internationalisation.”

In light of the intricacies of the realities of internationalisation, the task of finding an encompassing definition needs to continue. But that race may not be an easy one.

* A response to this article by Professor Hans de Wit will be published in a forthcoming edition of University World News.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is convenor and founder of the Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America (HEFAALA). Teferra is founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He steers the Higher Education Cluster of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at and