When HE internationalisation operates as an industry

There is a facade of higher education internationalisation that paints an idealistic picture of providing students with a global experience, stressing collaboration in research and strengthening ties among universities worldwide.

Of course, many involved in the increasingly complex and widespread ‘internationalisation industry’, now worth billions of dollars and involving more than six million students worldwide, are indeed idealistic and devoted to the best values of global collaboration and education.

But it is important to point to some worrying trends.

Comprehensive internationalisation less of a priority

Although the United States remains the largest host country for international students, there has never been a strong national commitment to internationalisation, and no strategy at the level of the federal or state governments. Two recent developments point to a worrying ‘de-internationalisation’ trend.

Harvard University, which for more than 50 years has hosted LASPAU, an independent non-profit affiliate dedicated to improving higher education in Latin America, is cutting it loose.

Since its founding, LASPAU has funded more than 18,000 graduate scholarships to the US, provided professional development to more than 5,000 academic leaders and collaborated with more than 1,000 institutions throughout Latin America. Without support for a transition programme to establish it as a completely independent entity, LASPAU will close later this year.

At the same time, the American Council on Education (ACE), a national professional organisation for American university presidents and the primary coordinating body for United States higher education, is likely to end its highly regarded Internationalization Laboratory after two decades and is ‘reorganising’ its global work – substantially de-emphasising its focus in this area.

Since 2003, the lab has provided unique guidance for comprehensive internationalisation on more than 200 campuses in the United States as well as recently also in Latin American universities, along with a network of expert, research and leadership support.

We pointed out similar trends in a 1995 article in International Higher Education, pointing to threats to the Fulbright programme at that time. Fulbright survived.

Our arguments then, and now, are that by having no internationalisation strategy or commitment, the US has left policy and practice to the vagaries of politics – often, as currently, trending toward nativism, knowledge security and anti-foreign populism.

Especially central during the Trump years, this has meant unpredictable policies concerning visas, research collaboration and the like.

Increasingly US international higher education practice is driven by commercial interests – earning income from international student fees and related income generation – and less directly by longer term national and institutional interests.

Of course, the United States is not alone. Countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have national policies that are increasingly focused on the commercial aspects of international activity.

Over-commercialisation of internationalisation

Several current developments illustrate a few of the problems created by widespread commercialisation.

According to the PIE News, a number of Australian universities have stopped recruiting students from the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana because of a large number of visa denials that followed recruiting agents in India submitting false documentation for applicants to Australian universities. North India is well known for corrupt agents and is the focus of widespread reports of fraud in admissions.

Recent proposed restrictions by the US Department of Education concerning the provision of services by unregulated foreign providers, potentially including recruiting agents, have panicked US higher education institutions worried that they may lose income as a result of increased regulation.

A recent Canadian television exposé revealed how students from India are exploited by fraudulent agents and for-profit colleges in Canada.

And research by the American Common Application organisation shows that international applicants from middle-income countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea come from elite families and are wealthier than local applicants and can afford US tuition charges. Applicants from lower-income countries, such as Nepal and Pakistan, can only matriculate with substantial financial aid, usually unavailable to international students.

Revenue generation remains the priority

Higher education leaders in the main host countries appear to be ignoring these challenges and continuing to perceive internationalisation as being predominantly international student recruitment and revenue generation.

A recent report by the international management consultancy, Nous Group, and global education provider Navitas, is quite revealing in that the senior administrators surveyed perceive that “internationalisation is synonymous to international student recruitment”.

Of the university leaders in Australia, Canada and the UK surveyed, over 90% agreed that internationalisation was a high priority for their institution, yet they saw international student recruitment as the most important area of focus “due to its pivotal role in revenue generation”.

According to the report, nearly all (96%) respondents rate international student recruitment as very or extremely important to their internationalisation strategy and believe that competition to recruit international students over the next three years will increase over pre-pandemic levels.

In other words, they have not learned about the risk of overdependence on international fees for institutional budgets that was made clearer by the pandemic, and they appear not to be concerned about geopolitical tensions, climate change or challenging economic, demographic and educational contexts in sending regions.

They also seem unconcerned about ethical issues and negative experiences that result from contracting recruitment agents. The report notes: “Agents continue to be a core strategic relationship for many universities seeking to increase international enrolments, particularly to support entry into new markets and meet growth targets in the face of increased competition.”

Problematic motivations

The view that internationalisation is primarily a process of generating revenue through international student recruitment seemed also to dominate at the recent International Higher Education Forum of Universities UK and Universities UK International.

Adam Habib, the South African director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, was a lone voice when he asserted that this was morally and commercially problematic.

Norway’s plan to introduce full fees for international students and Denmark’s plan to focus international recruitment on areas of local labour shortage also illustrate the trend in the Global North towards more self-interested interpretations of internationalisation.

But in reality it is simply exploitation of the Global South.

These are but a few examples of how aspects of the ‘higher education industry’, driven in some cases by declining domestic enrolments or by pressures to generate additional income, indulge in questionable or clearly predatory practices.

In the primary receiving Anglophone and European countries, we see a withdrawal from a comprehensive and cooperative strategy evident in the closures at ACE and Harvard and, on the other hand, a continuing trend towards internationalisation as recruitment for the purpose of revenue generation from an elite, ignoring the problematic and ethical consequences of such a policy.

Efforts in countries such as the Netherlands to ‘clean up’ unintended international recruitment problems (academic services, accommodation, retention, language concerns and so on) are overdue and should be a warning for education leaders of the academic, economic and ethical risks of viewing internationalisation as an industry.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow at the Boston College Center for International Higher Education in the United States. E-mail: Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at the same centre. E-mail: