Internationalising of HE for society comes of age

Internationalisation efforts have in large part been driven by the priorities and constraints of higher education institutions. This inward gaze has meant that internationalisation, among other contributing factors, has played a role in the alienation and perceived distancing of universities from their local context.

In my book Internationalising the University: A spiritual approach, I have argued that the way in which we have come to define the ‘world-class research university’, and make it a model exemplifying aspirational excellence, puts such institutions, and many others coveting that status, at odds with the mission of being locally grounded and catering to under-served regions and causes.

Having surveyed a variety of contexts, I have concluded that “this has further contributed to the diminution of public confidence in the idea of higher education being a public good”. The COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout have brought home the realisation that education and social outcomes are intimately linked and that care is inseparable from learning and work. As a result, nurturing an ethic of social responsibility has risen up the sectoral agenda.

Internationalisation practitioners have stepped up to the challenge of contributing to this worthy goal within the framework of ‘Internationalising Higher Education for Society’ (IHES). Data from surveys conducted to evaluate the results of internationalisation programmes and specific policy actions are instructive in terms of defining the contours and establishing the direction of travel for IHES.

Social impact

The 2019 Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study measures the impact of Erasmus+ mobility on students and faculty along the following indices: perceived personality development index, social engagement impact index, employability skills impact index and intercultural openness impact index. Of these four, the strongest correlation in the case of students is found between social engagement impact and intercultural openness.

Employability skills impact and perceived personality development also show a high correlation with the social engagement index. This suggests that opportunities for social engagement as part of the study abroad experience clearly have a positive influence on holistic personality development, while simultaneously better preparing students for the world of work.

The Erasmus+ Higher Education Impact Study also reveals that ‘quality of host institution’ and ‘opportunity to follow courses not offered at the home institution’ are not, contrary to popular perception, the most important factors informing students’ choice of study abroad experiences. Instead, the opportunity to expand their social network is overwhelmingly cited as the main motivation, across short-cycle, bachelor, masters and doctoral degree students.

This means that institutions otherwise not favoured by commonly deployed markers of quality such as league tables and rankings have the real possibility of inspiring international student interest by creatively designing social engagement programmes.

Further, it provides a strong argument for shifting the focus of the study abroad programme design away from the current model of ‘offshoring academic credit completion’ towards a more well-rounded paradigm of learning.

Finally, another notable finding of the Erasmus+ report is that, compared with other areas of attitudinal development such as taking into account different cultural perspectives and critically analysing media representations, a smaller percentage of respondents reported an enhancement in ‘engagement in social activities that contribute to the interest of the community or society’.

This could be indicative of the fact that social engagement needs to be more intentionally built into study abroad programme design. Given its more ambiguous and context-dependent nature than some of the other more measurable outcome variables, at the conceptual level, frameworks should be designed to effectively enable students to independently pursue and reflexively assess learning outcomes.


While due recognition of gearing internationalisation efforts to achieve positive social impact is a necessary first step, what are some of the further measures that would be essential to get mission IHES off the ground?

First, more attention should be paid to curriculum glocalisation and decolonising knowledge. Glocalising the curriculum is to offer local perspectives and conceptual interpretations alongside comparative and global variants. Decolonising knowledge is important as it can prove an effective counter to misunderstanding diverse realities through application of off-the-shelf hegemonic theoretical lenses, leading to unfavourable or hierarchical judgement and greater distancing.

Once this foundation is in place, study abroad experiences can be elevated from being learning ‘about’ to learning ‘from’ and ‘with’ local host societies.

Shared experiences

Second, approaches to developing intercultural competence currently embedded in study abroad programmes emphasise the ability to identify, live with and adeptly navigate difference. An embrace of local realities cannot possibly stem from a mindset focused on ‘difference’. Intercultural competence must be redefined as the quest for shared associations and unifying experiences – as I have elsewhere termed it, ‘seeing all beings as oneself’.

Related to this, it is also noteworthy that, at present, the IHES agenda is being envisioned and articulated by internationalisation experts and policy-influencers as contributing to the fight against xenophobia, radicalisation and other concerns.

It is important for universities not to cause further estrangement with local communities by approaching them as ‘fixers’ and ‘problem solvers’, but to pay more attention to making up the learning we seem to have missed in the first place. The pitfalls of constructing the edifice of IHES around the supply side strengths of universities should be consciously avoided.

Certain reforms are called for within those institutions which are seriously invested in the success of IHES. Many faculty members who wish to contribute to local social impact are unable to invest time in doing so because of a skewed incentive structure that rewards other deliverables. This must be remedied as faculty-driven initiatives are so often the only way for students to feel inspired and get involved.

A culture of service should be re-introduced to campuses – some of which have become self-styled service providers where students are treated as consumers, fostering an ethos of rootlessness and entitlement.

How creatively we mainstream impact into all learning and how authentically we offer students frameworks of self-discovery through service will ultimately determine whether the internationalisation project will be a source of strength for universities via IHES or ultimately risk its own irrelevance and obsolescence.

Kalyani Unkule is director of international affairs and global initiatives at OP Jindal Global University in India and associate professor in the Jindal Global Law School. Her book Internationalising the University: A spiritual approach is published by Palgrave Macmillan.