Is this the dawn of a post-internationalisation era?

Just over a decade ago, in the journal International Higher Education, Uwe Brandenburg and Hans de Wit suggested that the end of internationalisation might be upon higher education. They wrote: “Possibly we must even leave the old concepts of internationalisation and globalisation and move on to a fresh unbiased paradigm.”

Their prediction came as a shock to scholars and practitioners heavily invested in internationalisation, but it also opened further conversation for critique of internationalisation in academic circles. During this time, a robust literature on critical internationalisation has emerged. This track of scholarship has continued to interrogate the strategy of internationalisation, revealing the negative consequences of some contemporary internationalisation practices.

Recently, Kumari Beck broke new conceptual ground in her 2021 Journal of International Students article titled “Beyond Internationalisation: Lessons from post-development”.

Drawing on post-development theory, Beck hypothesised that internationalisation is due for a collapse because it is built on a shaky foundation. To explain this, Beck referenced the ways in which post-development is conceptualised and theorised. Post-development scholarship critiques international development paradigms that seek to address global problems through impositions of northern ideologies.

The conceptualisation of ‘development’ these scholars seek to move beyond is disproportionately grounded in the measurement of economic growth being the most important indicator of so-called progress. Post-development scholars often describe, and commit to, a world in which growth is balanced by sustainability and the neocolonial relations of power that mark official development regimes are replaced by collaborative, reciprocal partnerships.

Drawing on post-development theory, Beck suggested that post-internationalisation is a way to leave behind institutional and higher education sector-level internationalisation strategies that are inseparably bound to global neoliberalism and colonial legacies.

Beck envisioned a post-internationalisation ‘commons’ informed by “communal, relational and pluriversal” forms of education spanning the Global North and South. Building on Beck’s work, I exemplify several ways in which a post-internationalisation era has already begun in practice.

The evolution of internationalisation

A significant indicator of post-internationalisation is the rethinking at some institutions regarding the metrics used as evidence of internationalisation. The logic of counting and cataloguing each cross-border activity is very much in question in 2023.

Brandenburg and De Wit questioned the logic of such models of internationalisation a decade ago – “more exchange, more degree mobility and more recruitment”, argued the authors, does not answer ‘why’ or ‘wherefore’ questions about internationalisation.

For some institutions, moving away from expanding and tracking cross-border activity is the result of staffing shortages. For others, it is part of a deep reflection on internationalisation itself. The COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckonings, the legacies of colonialism and imperialism and the recent anti-rankings movement in higher education have instigated a shift – albeit an incremental one – away from the internationalisation practices that dominated the 1990s to the 2010s.

Two additional tenets that have driven internationalisation activity have come under fire from critics in the past several years. The first is mobility, which is linked to cross-border study and cooperation. In International Higher Education, Laura Rumbley questioned the climate impact of centring mobility as part of an internationalisation strategy.

As noted above, when ‘success’ is indicated by how many humans move across borders, there will be inevitable climate consequences. For this reason, some institutions are now examining the primacy of mobility as a strategy for internationalisation and focusing on quality of experience over quantity of experiences.

Secondly, critiques of intercultural competence frameworks – an explicit goal of ‘internationalisation at home’ and other internationalisation activities – have also increasingly come under scrutiny.

Some scholars like Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-García have long questioned the logic of treating cultural competence as a form of capital, while anthropologically informed scholars question the conceptualising of ‘cultures’ as static, singular and inseparable from nation states.

Finally, racial reckoning and decolonisation movements on campuses have exposed the limitations of intercultural communication and its lack of theoretical capacity to identify the structural inequalities that reinforce injustice and discrimination in universities and broader society.

Addressing the big questions

Perhaps the most telling sign of internationalisation’s sunset is the movement away from nation-state-centric models of academic cooperation. In universities around the world, transnational advocacy networks are engaging with one another, focused on disciplinary and interdisciplinary projects such as global health crises, peacebuilding and advocacy for the environment.

Other networks have focused on broad concepts such as cultural and linguistic sovereignty amongst Indigenous collaborators and their allies. These projects do not need – and may even be harmed by – nation-state orientations.

Transnational academic networks that have emerged from the technological and communication benefits of globalisation are developing worldwide and indicate a shift from work that is narrowly framed as ‘international cooperation’ to that which is focused on scholars and students with transnational affinities and commitments. These projects undoubtedly benefit from a diversity of stakeholders but are not innately successful because they are ‘international’.

The term post-internationalisation represents a shifting away from the status quo and an opportunity for hope for the field. Internationalisation put itself in a trap by its focus on measuring growth: more cross-border activity, more international agreements, etc.

Strategies such as ‘internationalisation at home’ and even ‘inclusive internationalisation’ (which I have written about elsewhere) only serve as temporary solutions to the larger problem of a practice that is currently over-reliant on inconsequential metrics, neoliberal orientations and decades-old models of uncritical intercultural communication.

Post-internationalisation represents a chance to move away from transnational work being co-opted by neoliberal goals, freedom from the narrow conceptualisation of ‘national culture’ and a refocusing of goals that look beyond the development and instrumental measurement of cultural competence.

As noted above, post-internationalisation framings also allow for deeper engagement with the linguistic and cultural sovereignty that exists within currently defined nation-state borders, and perhaps a more reflexive focus on global justice issues.

What comes after internationalisation?

In conclusion, Beck’s framing of post-internationalisation sets up an important question for the field: What happens after internationalisation?

I do not have an answer to this question, but I hope Beck’s conceptualisation of a ‘commons’ can help to provide such a space. As a scholar and practitioner, I suggest that post-internationalisation framings could acknowledge the complexity of cross-border work and sovereignty, and the plural thought of those who are involved in such work.

I would also hope that post-internationalisation frameworks would allow for a focus on the nuanced and intersectional identities of individuals involved in global work, rather than focusing entirely on their nation-state status.

Finally, just as post-development scholars have embraced concepts like ‘buen vivir’ as going beyond narrow conceptualisations of economic development, I hope this brief article stimulates debate and proposals for what might come after internationalisation.

Christopher J Johnstone is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the department of organisational leadership, policy and development at the University of Minnesota, United States.