New report maps internationalisation in ‘turbulent’ future

Patterns of international mobility and collaboration are likely to change in the next decade, as Asia is predicted to be nearing the peak of its population growth, while Africa’s predicted surge is just starting.

Institutions in countries with declining populations are likely to seek ways of attracting more international students, which could exacerbate brain drain as well as increase competition for study abroad, according to a new study.

African countries are likely to become a greater focus for international student mobility, as well as for economic, research and academic collaboration.

The study also foresees three major international research areas for the coming decade: global health; global sustainability and climate change; and global geopolitical polarisation and conflict.

It predicts that science diplomacy will have an increasingly important role as global warming, conflict and migration and authoritarianism and nationalism continue to fuel instability.

The Foresight 2030 study, commissioned by the board of the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) on the role of academic internationalisation over the next decade, was launched in Stockholm on 26 September.

It suggests that virtual connectivity will continue to be an important component of people’s work, lives and study, but there will still be a need for travel and in-person gatherings and hybrid solutions will feature prominently.

The report is authored by an international expert council established by STINT to make recommendations on current issues, as well as discuss future developments of relevance to STINT’s mission.

The advisory council* was led by Agneta Bladh, former state secretary in the Swedish Ministry of Education and Science and immediate former chair of the Swedish Research Council.

Foresight 2030 argues that the world has become more complex, polarised, unpredictable and volatile and suggests that effective leaders need to continually scan the horizon for opportunities and threats to position and engage their institutions proactively, rather than reactively.

High-level trends identified include: changing demography; persisting migrant and refugee crises driven by war and ethnic conflicts, pandemics and global warming; increasing socio-economic inequality that may lead to political destabilisation; increasing lack of trust in expert institutions, education and the media; information wars; and reshaping of geopolitics and international relations.

It posits that authoritarianism and nationalism will continue to pose a threat to the world order, with the potential onset of a new type of Cold War as nations take sides on important issues.

Academia has a very important role to play, according to the study. Topics such as responsible internationalisation and science diplomacy are listed as important instruments for university leadership to deal with a changing knowledge society.

Swedish challenges

Listing the challenges facing Swedish higher education in the next decade, Foresight 2030 points to legislation allowing state agencies to limit institutional autonomy in seeking international partnerships.

These restrictions are leading to Swedish higher education institutions being unable to operate beyond national borders and are “limiting action abroad as well as proactive and collaborative internationalisation”, it notes.

The report also finds that Swedish higher education institutions generally do not keep an eye on external trends, which leads to limited awareness of developments, strategies, priorities, structures and operations at foreign universities.

The report recommends that leadership at Swedish institutions prioritise “real internationalisation … beyond running an international office that handles the administration of student exchanges and foreign research contracts”.

The Foresight 2030 report considers how prepared the academic community is for future uncertainties. Would the authors of a ‘Foresight’ report commissioned in 2012 have foreseen the strong populist and nationalist developments of the last decade? Would they have foreseen the advent of the perception, which exists in some political circles, of universities as part of the problem rather than part of the solution to the grand challenges of today?

The report notes an imbalance between incoming and outgoing mobility at Swedish higher education institutions, with significantly more inbound students than outgoing. It also calls for outgoing Swedish students, who tend to favour English-speaking study destinations, to “show greater ambition to learn from a wider world perspective, for example in Asia, Africa and South America”.

The report emphasises the opportunity Sweden has to play a special role in science diplomacy, as was proposed in a previously commissioned STINT report, Science Diplomacy in and for Sweden.

“Renewed awareness of the importance of internationalisation in terms of economic development and public/science diplomacy is also expected. Following the Second World War, the Fulbright Program was started to build intercultural awareness. Nations might again seek to use higher educations as a means to build soft power and strengthen international relations.

“Higher education institutions must take a strong position, including dedicated international collaboration and exchanges, to address the many challenging issues we face today. This involves for instance taking active measures to combat nationalism, populism, intolerance, as well as various forms of propagandistic disinformation. International collaboration and exchange connect people and are therefore essential peacekeeping activities [italics as in report].”

New directions

Bladh told University World News that writing the report in “these turbulent times” was a challenge.

“The fact that 10 years ago we neither expected a pandemic nor a war speaks for itself. So, five to 10 years ahead might be as difficult to foresee,” she said.

“However, there is a need to discuss possible future expectations in order to increase our preparedness. The authors of the Foresight do not expect internationalisation and mobility to be as it was before the pandemic. We expect new directions and are pointing out some of them,” Bladh said.

Bladh went on to say that higher education institutions would need to be proactive in order to be vital partners in the international academic community.

“Comprehensive internationalisation is therefore necessary. This concerns both education and research, however, with different approaches. Collaboration partners will be more focused and might shift as well.

“Different universities and regions in the world may be approached in another way, being aware both of the demographic developments in the world and the rise of new interesting research partners in the attempt to contribute to societal challenges,” she said.

Bladh said regionalisation of collaboration had already been strengthened in Europe and this could offer a foundation for the establishment of partners outside Europe.

She said adjustment of the regulations for Swedish higher education institutions was necessary for them to become active partners in multi-university collaboration inside and outside Europe.

“The Foresight aims to stimulate Swedish HEIs [higher education institutions] to take new steps in their internationalisation. The important thing is to be aware of a changing world order and the consequences for the internationalisation of higher education and research,” Bladh argued.

Beyond student mobility

Professor William Brustein, former vice-president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University in the United States, and a member of the STINT advisory board, told University World News he wanted to highlight two points.

“First, when we speak about internationalisation of higher education, we need to think beyond student mobility.

“Comprehensive internationalisation includes both extra-mural elements (student mobility, research collaborations, etc) and intra-mural elements (ie, implementing a globally competent curriculum or learning experience for all of our higher education students – especially for those who will not have the opportunity or desire to go abroad).

“I fear that without a robust globally competent learning experience, students will lack the global knowledge, global skills and global attitudes to successfully tackle the critical global challenges confronting us today and tomorrow.

“Second, higher education leaders, notably in the US (and likely elsewhere), have become too complacent in speaking out about the challenges to the rule of law and democracy. Much of this reticence in the US stems from fear of retribution from conservative boards of trustees and government officials.

“However, universities, among public institutions, are best positioned to take bold stands on critical issues such as climate change, global health, global polarisation and social inequality based on scholarly research,” he said.

International higher education specialist Hans de Wit, a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education and professor emeritus of the practice at Boston College in the United States, was critical of the report.

“While it is in itself an important initiative of STINT to come with a foresight for internationalisation for the next decade, the report of its international advisory board is disappointing,” he told University World News.

Lack of emphasis

He said while it describes in “rather general terms” global and Swedish challenges for international cooperation, it fails to “adequately emphasise” some essential ones.

These include: the tension between the need for increased international cooperation and concerns for national security; elitism, marketisation and neoliberalism versus internationalisation for all and for society; the increasing inequality in international cooperation and what that means for cooperation of Swedish higher education with the Global South; and the importance of decolonisation of education and research, topics currently high on the agenda in the debate about internationalisation for the next decade.

De Wit said while STINT is primarily focused on international cooperation beyond Europe, the position of Sweden within Europe and the EU is an essential factor, also for academic collaboration beyond Europe. “But it [Sweden’s position within the EU] is only very marginally addressed in the report,” he noted.

“Maybe the composition of the advisory board, predominantly Swedish and US without input from Europe, Latin America and only marginally Asia and Africa, is responsible for these essential omissions.

“It also might explain why there is a call in the report for an active role of Swedish higher education in the development of what they call ‘multinational universities’ but reads as stimulating campuses and offices abroad. A more critical analysis of such an idea would have deserved space in the report,” De Wit said.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, president of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, described the report as timely but said it represented “an opportunity missed”.

The report “fails to duly cover the plethora of challenges that we are facing today in the realm of academic internationalisation. This is an opportunity missed. More than ever, we need to reflect on how to navigate responsibly in a world that becomes more turbulent by the day and that sees a democratic backsliding that puts academic values in peril,” he said.

International collaboration: A sine qua non

Ottersen said for universities, international cooperation is a sine qua non, not a “nice to have”.

“The report should have been more insistent in its emphasis on the benefits and necessity of international cooperation in research and education. The focus on legal obstacles for establishing campuses abroad takes the attention away from the more imminent problems regarding collaboration with authoritarian regimes in different parts of the world.”

He said it was now essential that higher education institutions build competence “that enables them to uphold academic collaborations on a global scale in a situation of increasing political pressure and polarisation, increasing protectionism, and increasing restrictions on academic freedom”.

He said such competence must be available not only in university leadership but, more importantly, in the individual research groups engaged in international collaborations.

“The authors of the current report would have been well advised to point to the types and breadth of competence that are needed to safeguard these collaborations in the years to come,” he said.

*Members of the advisory board include:

• Professor Bertil Andersson, former president of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore;

• Dr Agneta Bladh, former chair of the Swedish Research Council;

• Professor William Brustein, former vice-president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, United States;

• Professor Jason E Lane, dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, United States; and

• Dr Nelson Torto, former executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, and now permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communications, Knowledge and Technology, Botswana.