A time for innovation in international HE post COVID-19

The future of higher education internationalisation has been a major topic in the past months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where will traditional exporters of higher education services find their international students? How will these higher education services be provided? And how will traditional importers of higher education services react to the COVID-19 challenges and respond to innovation related to higher education internationalisation?

Prior to the pandemic, there was a geographical shift in international student mobility towards intra-regional mobility, students studying on offshore campuses or undertaking partial or full international programmes in their home countries.

Although the latest UNESCO statistics show an increase in international tertiary student mobility from 4,495,697 to 5,571,402 during the 2014-18 period, roughly 50% (including 22.47% from South and West Asia) of this increase came from the Asia Pacific region.

The United States, United Kingdom and Australia (traditional higher education exporters) hosted 33.81% (17.72%, 8.11% and 7.97% respectively) of global international students.

Socio-economic, cultural and proximity issues have also brought about intra-regional student mobility, while the proliferation of international branch campuses, joint programmes and other similar schemes have reduced international student mobility in some countries.

In the current and post-COVID world, which comes with international mobility challenges and the move to digital learning, traditional (and even emerging) higher education exporters can look at population growth and socio-economic, diplomatic and cultural factors to locate potential international students.

Although China will still play a significant role in international student mobility in the coming years, the increasing number of international programmes and branch campuses in China, along with its greying population, may reduce the number of its outbound international students in the coming decades.

India, Indonesia offer opportunities

With 375,055 and 49,900 outbound international students respectively (according to 2018 figures), India and Indonesia not only represent the second and fourth most populous countries in the world, but also have a low ratio of outbound international students to population, improving socio-economic development and an English-speaking population.

Internationalisation of higher education (post COVID-19) is likely to bring about a hybrid (traditional and digital) or even a strong trend to further develop digital-based programmes.

Furthermore, internationalisation is not limited to international student mobility or programme delivery but should be considered within what academics call comprehensive internationalisation to enhance and bring the international experience to as many students as possible.

As such, developing more partnerships and developing joint hybrid and-or digital programmes with universities including those in India and Indonesia, could potentially reduce the pressures on traditional higher education exporters brought about by the ongoing pandemic.

However, issues particularly related to quality assurance and the equivalency of such programmes (especially in relation to traditional higher education programmes) are still quite challenging.

The ongoing higher education regionalisation project in Southeast and East Asia, including the drive to enhance intra-regional university student mobility, provides a strong political and functional framework to enhance and capture future international students (be that through traditional or digital internationalisation).

In fact, the ongoing ratification by various Asia-Pacific countries of the 2011 Tokyo Recognition Convention and the adoption of the 2019 UNESCO Global Recognition Convention further improve the potential for traditional and eventually non-traditional (hybrid and-or digital) higher education internationalisation, particularly in the Asia and Pacific region.

Micro-credentialing and internationalisation of higher education

Considering that international certification (for instance, for Certified Management Accountants and Certified Financial Analysts) and other continuing professional education programmes have proliferated globally over the past decades and are recognised by their respective stakeholders, it may be time to look into potential innovations in the development, delivery and internationalisation of higher education.

The growth of the micro-credentialing industry sheds light on how future higher education programmes may be developed. Higher education programmes, higher education courses and learning outcomes can be broken down into smaller units of learning and granted micro-credentials by higher education providers to be further accumulated and assessed if they fulfil the requirements of a traditional higher education programme.

Recognition of prior learning practices such as in the 2019 UNESCO Global Recognition Convention and the clear shift towards competency-based teaching and learning provide clear frameworks for redefining the future of learning and eventually what comprehensive internationalisation should or can be.

However, challenges to this approach clearly include quality assurance, government support and recognition (particularly from ministries of education) and a structure that ensures joint delivery, quality assurance, recognition, assessment of learning outcomes and credentialing.

Questions such as who will issue the diploma and what portion of the micro-courses should be taken from a higher education institution and its partner institutions need to be addressed.

Internationalisation of higher education is not something limited by the number of international students or the various types of international higher education providers.

Taking the concept of comprehensive internationalisation into account and the clear challenges brought about by the fourth industrial revolution and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a traditional approach to addressing the challenges of internationalisation of higher education may no longer be practical.

I would argue that proactive innovation in internationalisation of higher education, such as exploring new curriculum development, partnerships and the internationalisation potential of micro-credentialing in higher education should be explored in relation to potential future models of internationalisation of higher education.

Remember the challenges and pains the higher education sector underwent due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Should we wait for a crisis in higher education and-or internationalisation of higher education before we consider more drastic and innovative approaches?

A hybrid approach to internationalisation of higher education, such as the use of micro-credentialing, may provide a possible solution to the future of internationalisation of higher education.

Roger Chao Jr is an international education development consultant. He was formerly the senior consultant and higher education specialist for the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, China, and UNESCO Myanmar.