Are North American HE institutions truly globally engaged?
Many North American higher education institutions occupy first place in international rankings and the United States is the first destination country of international students around the world, while Canada is the third.
Therefore, one could have the perception that North America is the leading region in terms of internationalisation and global engagement. But is this really the case? Are North American higher education institutions really globally engaged?
The results of the 6th Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education conducted by the International Association of Universities (IAU) between January and June 2023 draw another picture of internationalisation in North America, especially when compared to other regions of the world.
Low and falling engagement
In 2014, when the 4th IAU Global Survey was conducted, North American higher education institutions constituted the second biggest group of respondents with 19% of all replies, second only to Europe.
Considering that North American higher education institutions constitute 11% of higher education institutions globally at the time, North America was overrepresented in the results of the global survey.
However, since then, participation of North American higher education institutions in the survey has drastically declined. In the 5th IAU Global Survey (2018) North American higher education institutions constituted only 6% of the total replies, making the region underrepresented.
In the 6th IAU Global Survey (2023) they continue to represent only 6% of the total replies but considering that the total number of replies declined from the 5th to the 6th edition of the global survey, the absolute numbers of replies from North America also declined to a level that means the region is barely statistically relevant in the 6th Global Survey.
This decline is even clearer looking at the number of replies in each country: while Canada dropped from 40 higher education institutions in the 4th IAU Global Survey to 15 in the 5th IAU Global Survey and then remained stable at that number in the 6th edition, the number of higher education institutions from the United States dropped from 209 in the 4th IAU Global Survey to 41 in the 5th IAU Global Survey to only 28 in the 6th edition. Considering that there are more than 2,200 higher education institutions in the United States, this number represents only 1% of them.
This decline is even more surprising as major organisations that are active in internationalisation in North America such as NAFSA: the Association of International Educators and the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education were official partners in the 6th IAU Global Survey and actively promoted it.
Therefore, the question that arises is: why are North American, and especially United States, institutions not replying to the only truly global institutional survey on internationalisation?
The importance of internationalisation
The answers to the previous question can be multiple, but the results of the survey help shed some light.
When asked to evaluate the importance of internationalisation for academic leadership 63% of North American higher education institutions that responded to the survey identified this as “high”.
Although at first sight this could seem a good result, compared to the global average (77%) and to other regions of the world, this is the lowest percentage.
At the same time North America is the region with the highest percentages of higher education institutions considering internationalisation of “medium” (28%) or “low” importance (9%).
When asked to identify the most important benefits of internationalisation, nearly two thirds (62%) of the respondents identified “enhanced international cooperation and capacity building” as the foremost potential institutional benefit of internationalisation.
This stands out as the most important benefit in all regions but North America. In all regions other than North America, “enhanced international cooperation and capacity building” was selected by the majority of institutions with as many as 80% of higher education institutions in North Africa and the Middle East selecting it.
On the contrary, in North America, only 42% of higher education institutions selected it, making it the third most common benefit in this region.
If the most important benefit in North America (the only one chosen by a majority of higher education institutions at 60%), “increased global, international and intercultural knowledge, skills and competences for both students and staff”, is the second at global level (chosen by 51%) and therefore a common one, it is interesting to note that the second most significant benefit in North America, selected by 44%, is “increased/diversified revenue generation”, which is not among the most important benefits in any other region.
Risks and challenges
The same percentage of North American higher education institutions selected “too much focus on recruitment of fee-paying international students” as one of the most important institutional risks of internationalisation, which was selected by no more than 10% in any other region.
Also, 65% of North American higher education institutions selected “visa restrictions imposed by their own country on foreign students, researchers and academics” as the most important external obstacle/challenge to internationalisation, which was selected by less than 25% higher education institutions in all other regions of the world.
These results point to the importance of an economic rationale for internationalisation in North America based on a competitive model in which the attraction of talent and especially of fee-paying international students plays a major role, rather than a collaborative one. This is also confirmed by the fact that the most common societal risk identified by almost half of North American higher education institutions is “commodification and commercialisation of education”.
Also interesting is the fact that 53% of North American institutions selected “competing priorities at institutional level” as the most common institutional obstacle/challenge, an obstacle that in all other regions of the world does not reach 30% of higher education institutions, signalling once more a lower degree of importance accorded to internationalisation by North American higher education institutions compared to the rest of the world.
North American exceptionalism?
The divergence in results for North America compared to all other regions of the world is visible throughout the survey when it comes to different aspects of internationalisation and was already apparent from the results of the 5th IAU Global Survey.
The level of engagement and the results of the 6th IAU Global Survey unveil a North American exceptionalism in internationalisation, which is more the representation of a different reality rather than a sign of excellence.
Based on the responses described in the survey, it is possible that North American higher education institutions see themselves as the gatekeepers of internationalisation, understood narrowly as the influx of international students for revenue-generating purposes, rather than as active promoters of it.
The picture of internationalisation in North America that emerges from the 6th IAU Global Survey is one in which internationalisation is still very much defined by an economic rationale in which talent attraction still plays a very important role and competition dominates over collaboration.
The total number of responses in the 6th IAU Global Survey was 15 and 28 for Canada and the US, respectively. This stands in contrast to the 903 responses from the United States to Mapping Internationalization, a study conducted by the American Council on Education in 2022.
It is plausible that North American higher education institutions are interested mostly in understanding the internationalisation approaches of institutions within their region, while disregarding the rest of the world. This would be consistent with the competitive approach that seems to be dominant in the region. Therefore, can we really speak of globally engaged higher education institutions in North America?
Giorgio Marinoni is manager, higher education and internationalisation policy and projects of the International Association of Universities (IAU). Email: email@example.com. Gerardo Blanco is academic director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States and a member of the IAU advisory committee for the 6th IAU Global Survey on Internationalisation of Higher Education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: The report of the 6th IAU Global Survey will be published at the beginning of 2024 and will be available for free download on the IAU website.