A missed opportunity for the future of HE internationalisation

On 25 October 2021, international education organisations from nine Western countries published a 2021 Common Statement in Support of International Education and Mobility, as a result of their 2021 International Education Leadership Summit.

The organisations and countries are the British Council in the United Kingdom, Campus France, the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI), the Institute of International Education (IIE) in the United States, the Norwegian Directorate for Higher Education and Skills, Nuffic in the Netherlands and Uni-Italia in Italy.

The short statement is accompanied by brief national reports from the nine organisations – in the case of the United States surprisingly not by the IIE but by the US Department of State and US Department of Education and EducationUSA.

The title of the summit and resulting document appear, at first glance, to be quite advanced and promising as a comprehensive and inclusive approach to international education for the future: “What’s ahead: Building a more equitable, sustainable, peaceful world through international exchange in a post-pandemic world”.

Both in this title and throughout the statement and national reports, references to inclusivity, equity and sustainability suggest a focus on what had certainly become key action lines for the internationalisation of higher education before the pandemic and have become even more so since the pandemic hit.

Several policies and actions of these nine organisations – such as the Scholar Rescue Fund, the work on refugee access to higher education, capacity building and cooperation with other regions, internationalisation at home and internationalisation for society – are mentioned in the national reports by most of the nine organisations. It is positive that these organisations set their objectives for the future on international education and mobility.

Unfortunately, however, the short statement itself might be at best described as one step forward and two steps back in developing the internationalisation of education.

Greater inclusivity

In 2001 we argued that internationalisation should no longer be considered in terms of a Westernised, largely Anglo-Saxon and predominantly English-speaking paradigm. Many other scholars and policy advisors have argued for a more inclusive and less elitist approach to internationalisation than international exchange and mobility can offer.

Voices calling for decolonisation of the curriculum and for less emphasis on the Anglosphere and Western dominance in international education grow increasingly loud and articles on this topic are frequently seen in University World News as well as in peer-reviewed journals.

When the Nelson Mandela Bay Global Dialogue was convened in 2014, it included associations from all regions in the world. The resulting Declaration on the Future of Internationalisation of Higher Education stated: “Internationalisation must be based on mutual benefit and development for entities and individuals in the developed, emerging and developing countries.”

Have we gone backwards since 2014? Why a summit and common statement from nine organisations that only represent the Westernised, developed world instead of actively involving perspectives and positions from other regions?

National interests

Perhaps even more surprising is the rather explicit appeal in the statement to reinforce degree mobility towards the nine countries as well as exchange between these countries. It asks “leaders at every level to support measures to allow more students around the world to spend part of their education in other countries and to keep our own academic doors open to incoming students from abroad”.

And although it is followed by a call to respond to the needs of refugees, the impression remains that the most important post-pandemic action is to support in-bound mobility into the nine countries. The reports from the European and Canadian organisations suggest a more comprehensive and inclusive approach which, unfortunately, is not sufficiently reflected in the common statement.

The US document is even quite overt in its national focus: “We recognise that the US government has a unique role in international education because of its responsibility to the American people; its purview over foreign affairs, national security and economic and border policy; its capacity to provide national and global leadership; and its role in affecting how the United States is perceived globally.”

The common statement also explicitly promotes physical mobility and exchange, which has only ever been an option for a very small percentage of the global student body. It does not refer to virtual mobility and exchange, collaborative online international learning or virtual work placement, all of which plainly received added impetus as a result of the pandemic.

But many institutions had already begun to develop creative approaches to such initiatives before then, recognising their power to offer more inclusive and sustainable forms of mobility to engage more students in internationalisation than physical mobility ever can.

A throwback?

The national reports make frequent reference to the importance of digital internationalisation, but in the common statement it is surprisingly absent. Also missing is reference to the crucial role played by internationalisation of the curriculum at home, the social impact of internationalisation (internationalisation for society) and global learning for all students.

The overall impression given by the statement is that of a Western, physical mobility-focused approach to international education, something that may have been relevant in the past but is much less so for the present and for the future.

It has to be said that this is a missed opportunity and does not appear to be a reflection of what several of the organisations involved are advocating for. Partners in the Global South may continue to wonder what it takes for their voices to be heard.

Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. E-mail: Elspeth Jones is emerita professor of the internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom. E-mail: