Can universities have too much internationalisation?

From time to time the presence of international researchers and students prompts speculation over the impact it has on the role of universities in national systems and on local academic communities.

What has been construed as a tension between the university as a central institution in the nation state versus the inherent transnational character of research and higher education has become a highly contentious issue in the sector.

This applies in particular to universities in small and open systems.

The issue of protecting the national language against the influx of English as the lingua franca tends to add fuel to an already heated debate.

We have seen this in the case of Denmark, and recently a fierce discussion on internationalisation in the Norwegian higher education sector has been triggered by the claim that international researchers do not engage with society and join the debate in the Norwegian public sphere to the same extent as Norwegian nationals.

Either they have insufficient insight into Norwegian society or they lack an interest in and the willingness to ‘invest’ in such activities. Consequently, this will affect the quality of public debate and the public sphere and thus undermine the societal relevance of academia, the argument goes.

And when international professors are in the majority, academia’s role in serving society and contributing to democracy will be jeopardised and, allegedly, internationalisation at Norwegian universities has already reached a tipping point, the argument continues.

COVID confinement

Against the backdrop of 18 months with seemingly impenetrable national borders, such claims are puzzling. The debate on rampant internationalisation is a glaring contrast to the involuntary national ‘confinement’ we have lived through since March 2020 and the worrying effects it may have in the long run.

The pandemic has been a clear reminder of how dependent research is on international cooperation. International researchers are deeply interwoven into the research process. Similarly, student learning draws on an influx of ideas and experiences from outside the national setting. International cooperation, alliances, mobility and networks play such an important part in modern university life.

The Norwegian higher education system is heterogeneous – and how institutions work with and practise internationalisation is part of this diversity.

The University of Oslo (UiO) is an internationally leading, research intensive and comprehensive university. When our researchers publish, they do so most commonly in international scientific journals and in co-authorship with international colleagues.

This is an indication of how interaction among our researchers transgresses national borders – it is an ingrained part of academic life and defines our core activities. Of the 34,512 scientific articles that UiO researchers published from 2016 to 2021, more than 60% were co-authored with international colleagues.

Students also contribute to internationalisation in a significant way. International diversity is a hallmark of our campus. Over the past three years an average 4,242 out of 27,832 registered full-time students did not have a Norwegian passport. Many Norwegian students have also pursued their degrees abroad. They return with international experiences and perspectives.

We work on providing our students with more opportunities for student exchange and alternative ways of internationalisation with our European university alliance, Circle U, as the centrepiece of that effort.

How about our professors? We have a clear policy: We recruit scientific staff in an open and transparent manner and with a strong imperative to hire the best applicant based on the requirements and standards that are set.

This we do with conviction. International scholars make our academic communities stronger and contribute to strengthening our society. We take as our point of departure that academic commons and competitive arenas are global – for our university this is the right approach.

At the same time, we, of course, have a national role to play. This role has been a central focus for the university for more than 210 years and will continue in the years to come. The University of Oslo’s international orientation is a precondition for us to serve in that role.

We need to welcome and take care of our international staff, make sure they get proper language education and that they are introduced to Norwegian society and Norway’s higher education and research landscape – which is as diverse as Norway’s topography.

Quality matters

How about our local talent and research recruits? Do they lose out when strong international candidates enter the competition for funding and positions? If so, then we need to strengthen our efforts to educate and develop Norwegian research talents so that they are able to compete.

We cannot use a different rulebook and standards for our ‘domestic’ candidates than for our international candidates. Instead, we need to provide proper career guidance and mentoring for domestic students to be eligible for and to stay ahead in the academic race where quality is the main assessment criterion.

A share of domestic candidates need to qualify for positions at the University of Oslo and, in so doing, they will also become attractive candidates for positions at strong universities abroad. We cannot lower our ambitions. Knowledge development is global and high speed and we are dependent on keeping up.

Of course, the diversity of the research landscape also applies within universities. Some disciplines and fields of research are more oriented towards the national and local context, whereas others are predominantly global.

The debate over the balance between different concerns, such as the ratio of Norwegian to international professors, can be relevant and necessary and is, in some ways, part of an ongoing conversation in research groups and departments.

Nonetheless, the main conversation should revolve around how we can create the right conditions for exciting, creative and dynamic research groups to flourish while we develop high quality teaching and learning environments and engage with society – within and beyond national borders. We are an academic community after all.

Åse Gornitzka is pro-rector and Svein Stølen is rector of the University of Oslo, Norway.