How to place internationalisation at the heart of HE

Given the myriad of challenges and changes to higher education, not least in the wake of the COVID pandemic, creating a new ecosystem for the internationalisation of higher education has become more important than ever.

This, as an interdependent world characterised and driven by common challenges and the need for common solutions, requires from higher education institutions globally to place internationalisation at the centre of their mission.

To do this successfully, what I label the five ‘I’s of internationalisation need to be foregrounded and considered.


First, internationalisation must be developed with ‘intent’. This means that a clear strategy needs to be developed that captures, not only the vision and mission to put internationalisation at the centre of the universities’ strategic mission, but how this is to be done and what activities, processes and resources are to be dedicated to the internationalisation project and profile of the institution.

If we cannot draw on clear strategy and intent, we cannot justify, nor measure our internationalisation efforts and the drive towards centring global cooperation in all our endeavours.

Importantly, internationalisation driven by strategic intent has to be built around, and be grounded in, the following four ‘I’s.


Second, at the heart of all internationalisation efforts is the drive to be inclusive and to break down barriers towards inclusivity and diversity in research, recruitment of staff and students, in the classroom, and on campus in its entirety.

This entails the inclusion of a wide group of marginalised communities that need to feel at home within our institutions of higher learning. We need to work towards enforcing global solidarity through gender and LGBTQI+ inclusion, and racial diversity, among others.

Internationalisation should also not be taken to be inherently universal or global. There is an acute need for rethinking how the ‘international’ is equated with the Global North to the detriment, and cost of, denying the Global South.

There is a need to understand and work towards the decolonisation of the ways in which internationalisation is driven, and to reconnect with its humanistic grounding and rationale.


Third, the COVID pandemic has, more than anything else, shown us the need for innovation in higher education and triggered a range of innovative solutions for how to ensure that research, teaching and learning and student services continue without major disruption.

Apart from creative solutions that talk to interactivity, virtualisation and digitalisation, universities have also started to reimagine their physical spaces, how campuses are used, how students and academics work and interact and how virtual, hybrid and flexible teaching and work arrangements affect the well-being of staff and students.

Exciting work is also being done on flexible degree offerings and how to create multiple entry and exit points that facilitate continuous learning and certifications.

In this regard, it is worth mentioning microcredentialing, collaborative online international learning, or COIL, as well as opportunities for bringing staff expertise closer to the learners, and partnering with a wider array of stakeholders, whether academic, business, government, or non-governmental.


Fourth, and linked to the idea of innovation is interactivity, maybe better understood through digitalisation and virtualisation projects and processes.

Digitalisation and the escalation of virtual engagements have provided many opportunities for broader internationalisation engagements for researchers as well as students.

Growing and maintaining partnerships are, today, reliant on hybrid models that are simultaneously meaningful and cost-effective – and that talks to sustainability in multiple ways.

For local students, particularly those who would not normally be afforded opportunities for international engagements and experiences, the virtual has opened up new possibilities and, for international students, it has provided opportunities to register out of seat, thus not having to travel to South Africa to participate in classes when visas have been delayed and the costs of travel, living and medical insurance have been too high.

Once again, this is where our international collaborative networks and colleagues at overseas institutions become our close allies. Key here is to involve our Global South and African partners to ensure diversity, skills transfer and capacity-building on a truly global scale.


Finally, the fifth ‘I’ talks to impact and the absolute need to foreground societal and environmental sustainability and impact in all that we do.

Internationalisation is not an end goal but a means to an end. The fulfilment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is premised on internationalisation and talks to an interdependent world, where the problems of our times can only be solved through international collaboration on a massive scale.

Conversely, for internationalisation to be meaningful, it has to be transformative and make an impact on the university and its stakeholders. Without tangible and measurable outcomes, institutions will find it hard to support internationalisation on a larger scale and, thus, impact has to be shown.

Measuring impact that is not easily quantifiable, but that talks to more quantitative goals, is what universities do well and, as such, for drivers of internationalisation at universities and intuitions of higher learning, it is about explaining the rationale behind internationalisation and bringing forth the international dimensions of the work they do.

This is particularly important in the context of the Global South, where resources are scarce and internationalisation does not necessarily equate to commercialisation and income-generation – at least as far as student recruitment is concerned. Instead, in this context, the rationale behind internationalisation emphasises the breaking down of north-south, west and the rest and colonial divides, and stands to create opportunities for societal development and transformation.

In this regard, it is important to think about, and to be guided by, the five ‘I’s, of intent, inclusivity, innovation, interactivity and impact.

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is the head of the division for internationalisation and professor of communication studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.