Report maps ‘huge’ shifts in internationalisation on campuses

When compared with 2016-20 data, the COVID-19 crisis of 2020-21 caused a drop of 24 percentage points – from 64% to 40% – in university and college administrators who said the overall level of their institution’s internationalisation was “very high”, “high” or “moderate”, says a just released study by the American Council on Education (ACE).

The survey of 903 colleges and universities found the percentage of institutions reporting that internationalisation was a “low” priority grew by one-third to 32%, while those considering internationalisation a “very low” priority almost doubled to 28%.

The decline documented in ACE’s report, Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses: 2022 edition, accords with data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) a few weeks ago. NSCRC found that between fall 2020 and fall 2022, there were 8.4% fewer international students on America’s campuses. The greatest decline, 17.2%, occurred in the public four-year institutions, the largest sector in American higher education.

“Mapping is really the only report of its kind to look at internationalisation holistically,” says Dr Maria Claudia Soler, ACE’s senior research analyst, learning and engagement division (research), and lead author of the report.

“This iteration of the survey is particularly special because we knew we were collecting data in a time that made internationalisation efforts extremely difficult for institutions due to the pandemic, so we adjusted the survey to capture pre-pandemic and COVID-era trends and we captured post-pandemic outlook and changes around the different areas of ACE’s model for comprehensive internationalisation.

“While the pandemic impacted internationalisation across the board and many internationalisation activities were disrupted, we also observed serendipitous outcomes. For instance, institutions used technology to expand virtual international internships, international student recruitment and course-level collaborations in ways that used to be unthinkable some years ago.

“This was huge in terms of access as the use of technology created pathways for students to participate in COIL [collaborative online international learning] or international internship programmes and allowed students who may have previously been excluded from participating in such programmes the opportunity to engage in global learning.

“These results are exciting as they speak about institutional resiliency and creativity in a period of challenge for higher education,” she says, summarising the 74-page report.

Pre-COVID declines

Expectedly, the COVID-19 crisis saw a substantial increase in the percentage of administrators reporting that internationalisation was decreasing in their institutions.

For example, at the baccalaureate level, this figure dropped from 40% to 20%, and at the doctoral level, it dropped from about 43% to 20%. Concomitantly, at the baccalaureate level the percent indicating that internationalisation had declined rose from near zero to 35%: at the doctoral level the percent rose from about 5% to above 25%.

However much closed campuses and travel bans affected the number of administrators reporting that their campuses experienced drops in internationalisation, the declines predated the COVID-19 crisis.

Between 2016 and 2020, administrators of doctoral programmes reported a drop of about 10% in the numbers of administrators reporting that internationalisation was “somewhat accelerating”, while the baccalaureate level saw a decline from near 65% to 40%. Each level saw the percent reporting that internationalisation had “not accelerated” move from near 0% to 5%.

After a decade of historic growth in internationalisation and international enrolment, rates of internationalisation began to decline. One reason, according to ACE, is that countries that had been sending students overseas started encouraging competitive students to remain at domestic institutions.

As well, during this period, American domestic politics, under then president Donald Trump, made the United States a less desirable destination for many international students from the developing world.

According to Soler, during the Trump administration “there was also concern that changes and issues with federal immigration policy (eg, visa processing slowdowns) contributed to this decline. The Biden administration has tried to reverse Trump-era policies that discouraged international students from travelling to the US.”

Reasons to internationalise

NSCRC’s report showed that, overall, the drop in international students had slowed from 6% in the fall of 2021 to 2.6% this fall. Over the course of the pandemic, the private not-for-profit sector, which includes the nation’s most elite colleges and universities, bucked this trend, registering a 4.7% increase in international students.

ACE’s report drills further down into the reasons why internationalisation is considered important by America’s campus leaders.

In the 2011, 2016 and this year’s survey, more than 75% rated “To improve student preparedness for a global era” as the most important reason for internationalisation. Perhaps because of the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, the percent answering “To diversify students, faculty and staff” rose from about 55% to more than 60% between 2016 and 2021; in 2011 it had been about 48%.

Approximately 1% of colleges and universities reported that the reason for internationalisation was “To participate in US diplomacy efforts”, a figure that is unchanged from 2011. According to Soler, these institutions see themselves as key actors in strengthening relationships between international governments, NGOs, industry, etc, to address pressing global challenges or develop national reciprocity or collaboration.

As is the case in other countries, such as Canada, where, for example, as it has cut university budgets, the government of Alberta has told universities to become more entrepreneurial and find new revenue streams, American universities and colleges have looked to increased tuition and fees international students pay as an important source of revenue.

Since 2011, ACE shows, the percentage of administrators considering internationalisation forming a major revenue stream because of the increased tuition and fees international students pay has increased by more than 50%, to approximately 38%.

“We captured some of the reasons why institutions think that internationalisation is important,” Soler told University World News. “Yet, we know that institutional capacity to advance internationalisation efforts varies across institutions. For instance, some institutions may have a stronger institutional commitment or resources to devote to internationalisation that could explain some of the survey results.

“What it is important to remember is that across all types of institutions, preparing students for a global era, diversifying students, faculty and staff and becoming more attractive to prospective students are the main reasons to internationalise.”

The influence of rankings

In addition to the league tables that rank colleges and universities within a country, international university rankings by US News and World Report, Times Higher Education and the Center for World University Rankings are increasingly important for recruitment of both students and faculty, and for securing international grants.

Accordingly, since 2011, the percentage of American administrators considering internationalisation as important for improving their university or college’s place in international ranking has almost tripled, to 15%.

Yet, when asked what their priority areas were for internationalisation, about 50% of respondents said it was recruiting international students, a figure that is about 10 percentage points lower than before the pandemic.

The only activity that grew during the pandemic was “internationalising the curriculum and-or co-curriculum”, which went from near 30% to near 40%.

“We emphasise the curriculum [question] because we know that students, regardless of the programme, are all exposed to the curriculum and international perspectives to learn cultural competencies,” says Soler. “When students are in the classroom, they are much more open to the global perspective. They are willing to talk about what living in a global world is about. They are more willing to talk about and incorporate the issues around diversity, equity and inclusion.”

By way of example, we discussed Shakespeare studies. A global perspective on the Bard could include how Shakespeare was received and is today perceived in Latin America. It could include how in Ukraine, in the early 20th century, Shakespeare was translated into Ukrainian and performed in the language the Tsars banned – and how today Hamlet is performed in bomb shelters.

Urban-rural differences

The ACE report provides a fine-grained analysis of the difference between colleges and universities in urban-to-rural settings (‘urbanicity’).

Before the COVID pandemic, 33% of suburban schools rated their level of internationalisation as either “very high” or “high”. Fully 54% of these schools, which tend not to have dormitories, said that internationalisation was accelerating. Twenty-five percent of colleges and universities in cities rated their level of internationalisation as “very high” or “high” and 46% said it was accelerating.

The COVID pandemic reversed all these numbers. The percent of colleges and universities in urban areas rating their levels of internationalisation as “very high” or “high” fell 12 percentage points to 13%, while the percent saying their campuses were accelerating internationalisation was halved to 23%.

The percent of suburban schools rating their levels of internationalisation as “very high” or “high” fell from 33% to 11%. Those saying that these schools were accelerating internationalisation was more than halved, to 23%.

Before the pandemic, 12% of the administrators of schools in rural settings said that internationalisation was “very high” or “high.” In 2021, that figure was in single digits: 6%. The percent of these colleges and universities that could speak of accelerating internationalisation had fallen to 15% from 29% before the pandemic.

Optimism about the future

Each sector reported high aspirational numbers for internationalisation going forward: city 67%; suburban 70%; town 55% and rural 76%.

According to Soler, the numbers mean “institutions showed optimism about the future of internationalisation. However, both funding and assessment emerged as areas of improvement”.

Soler said: “Regarding funding, 42% of institutions reported that their funding sources for internationalisation activities or programmes have stayed the same during the past three years.

“Institutional efforts to develop a formal strategy or launching a dedicated fundraising campaign for internationalisation could help institutions support internationalisation initiatives in a comprehensive way that goes beyond capturing resources for international student recruitment.”