Higher education internationalists need to be disruptive

Business as usual in higher education internationalisation is severely disrupted for the short and medium terms, and very probably the long term. COVID-19 has triggered a new normal in just about all aspects of life, including higher education. Globalisation and internationalisation are not going away, but neither will look ‘tomorrow’ like they did ‘yesterday’.

Higher education internationalists need to be equally disruptive in their thinking and action to accommodate these new realities through change and innovation.

Predictors of a new normal were detectable prior to COVID-19 but are now magnified many-fold by it. For example:

• Years of public disinvestment in higher education are exacerbated by the COVID-19 economic fallout. The almost certain negative impact of COVID-19 on higher education budgets threatens the existence of some institutions and third-party service providers in some countries. Funds and support for many types of international activities, from both public and private sources, will not be at levels enjoyed in the recent past.

• The global spread of quality education and research capacity on all continents is widening options for attracting the best students and scholars. North America, Europe and the Antipodes have real competition on cost and quality bases.

• We have seen for many years that rapidly rising tuition costs for both domestic and international students limit access, build ill-will and reshape matriculation as well as mobility routes.

• More cost-effective and flexible models of mobility (short, long, internships and not-for-credit) for faculty and students have been in demand for many years. Existing mobility and partnership models are challenged by high-quality and less expensive regional options found closer to home for students and faculty throughout the world.

• Pressures to find more eco-friendly and sustainable modes of international engagement are now magnified by a collapsing airline industry which will re-emerge leaner and likely more costly. The recent rapid expansion of digital meeting, chat and learning options are proving to be workable alternatives – if not ideal in the eyes of purists.

Disruptive thinking

I and others began writing a decade ago about these and many other emerging challenges to traditional modes of higher education internationalisation. The concerns largely fell on deaf ears because preserving the status quo was easier and less disruptive.

There is little choice now but for us to engage in real change and innovation.

One small example: internationalising the curriculum at home will require new pedagogies, active learning models and innovative use of technology. We need artfully blended models of face-to-face and digital models of international engagement in teaching-learning and research-scholarship. The spread of e-science collaborative options diversifies modes of international engagement to meet the emerging new normal.

Another possibility: What if international education associations around the world focused their conferences on challenging the preferred internationalisation practices of an earlier age in favour of practice innovation that adapts to a new age and new engagement paradigms?

Change will drive our futures whether we choose to participate or not. The choice is to be proactive agents of change or be run over by it. We need to be genuinely open to new ideas and ways of engaging internationalisation and its purposes, rather than defending the old and familiar. We need to involve our student, community and institutional clientele in setting and implementing priorities for change, rather than merely experimenting on them.

The ongoing need for internationalisation

Globalisation and internationalisation are not dead. The virus actually proves the opposite as we struggle over its easy transmission across borders and as we search for solutions that require international cooperation and collaboration.

Change is afoot that reflects a morphing of globalisation rather than its disappearance. For example, we are already moving towards more digital globalisation, supplementing physical globalisation. And, the free-market, unregulated forms of cross border flows in goods and services, is under challenge and some reform.

The challenges of resurgent right-wing nationalism have been underway for nearly a decade and the virus makes national walls appear even more attractive to some, but at the same time they are ineffective. Even under nationalistic models, national success will depend on global collaboration for access to the best students, faculty and scholars. It is the right kinds of global collaboration that will result in cutting-edge opportunity and results that benefit all – the big guys, the little guys and in between.

Our challenge is to institutionalise self-examination, innovation and open-mindedness in our thinking, rather than to retreat in shock over COVID-19 impacts and conclude that all is dead or dying. Easily said, and hard to do, but that is the challenge for us to take up!

Dr John K Hudzik serves as chair of the NAFSA Senior Fellows for Internationalisation and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University (MSU) in the United States. From 1995 to 2010, he was dean of international studies and programs at MSU, served as vice president for global engagement and strategic projects, and was acting provost and vice president of academic affairs. Hudzik is past president and chair of the board of directors at NAFSA and past president of the Association of International Education Administrators.