A new kind of internationalisation to help achieve SDGs

In a multipolar world where crises are marked by their global nature and impact, it is critically important that higher education be included in all parts of society. Higher education institutions around the world must consider the impact of their activities on the environment, their influence in their local communities and their contribution to the global common good.

Teaching and learning, research, community engagement and partnerships are fundamental areas that can significantly contribute to progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Recognising interconnectedness

The SDGs provide a framework through which stakeholders are able to holistically approach and combine the complicated environmental, social, cultural and economic dimensions of the transformation towards a sustainable future.

For this reason, higher education institutions are increasingly orienting their strategies for sustainable development towards these goals. The International Association of Universities (IAU) has been working with its members and partners in supporting these efforts.

However, universities are complex ecosystems with many simultaneous activities. Next to the core missions of teaching and research, internationalisation and global engagement have been high on the higher education sector’s agenda in recent years.

As such, we must question how this emphasis on internationalisation interacts with the (relatively) new strategic focus on sustainable development. For too long, the two concepts of internationalisation and sustainable development have been treated completely separately inside higher education institutions, despite their inherent interconnectedness.

In recognition of this interconnectivity, initial attempts to link the two concepts have focused on SDG 13 (Climate action) and have begun to consider the environmental impact of internationalisation activities.

Commendable actions have been performed by higher education institutions around the world and grassroots initiatives such as the Climate Action Network for International Educators – CANIE – have raised awareness of the negative impact of some internationalisation activities, in particular, student and staff mobility, on the environment.

However, evidence also shows the positive impact of mobility on developing the international and intercultural competencies of students and the benefits of international collaboration in research.

An interesting example of an activity developed by students themselves is the SocialErasmus project of the Erasmus Student Network. This project is a good example of how internationalisation and student mobility can be used to make a positive societal impact. The programme promotes social integration among young citizens participating in mobility programmes while giving them the chance to make long-lasting social change in society through volunteering activities.

A holistic approach to internationalisation

Internationalisation is not a goal in itself but rather a means to an end (see also the IAU’s definition). It would be impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals without internationalisation and international cooperation.

However, in order for internationalisation to contribute effectively to a sustainable future, it must be based on cooperation instead of competition. Internationalisation must be inclusive, fair and ethical. For this to happen, a holistic approach to internationalisation is needed.

Internationalisation has long been reduced to student mobility and the attraction of international students for economic reasons.

Student mobility is highly unequal (only about 2.5% of the world student population can experience a mobility period abroad) and unbalanced (mobility fluxes are mainly East to West, with China and India being the main sending countries, and the United States, United Kingdom and Australia the main receiving countries).

This imbalanced approach is not sustainable, neither financially nor in terms of sustainable development, as was showcased during the COVID-19 pandemic when many higher education institutions that were highly reliant on attracting international students experienced financial stress.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented many higher education institutions with an opportunity to rethink internationalisation, adopt a holistic approach and focus more on internationalisation of the curriculum at home.

This became possible largely thanks to the development of virtual internationalisation that offered relatively new tools, such as virtual exchanges and collaborative online international learning (COIL). This digital transformation helps to make internationalisation more inclusive.

Partnerships and strategic approaches

The findings of the third IAU Global Survey on Higher Education and Research for Sustainable Development, conducted in 2022, reiterate that higher education and partnerships are essential to address the global challenges identified in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to build a more sustainable future together.

Forming and maintaining these partnerships (SDG 17) locally, regionally and internationally takes effort, respect and trust. As part of institutional internationalisation strategies, international offices are working in an intercultural context and are often driven by strong and mutual collaborations with their partner institutions around the world.

Following these results, the link between internationalisation and sustainable development was explored in the sixth Global Survey on Internationalisation of Higher Education conducted by the IAU between January and June 2023.

Respondents were asked the following question: “In which of the following ways are internationalisation and sustainable development linked at your institution?”

Respondents were given four response options:

• No explicit link (24%);

• Internationalisation policies and activities take into account climate action and environmental protection (18%);

• Internationalisation activities are linked to sustainability initiatives (also beyond climate action) but there is not an overall strategy to link the two (31%);

• The institution has a policy or strategy to use internationalisation as a means for the institution to support sustainable development (27%).

The results indicate that more than half of higher education institutions around the world are linking internationalisation and sustainable development beyond climate action and that there are more higher education institutions that are considering internationalisation as a means to support sustainable development than institutions that have no specific link at all.

Going deeper

The SDGs have the potential to initiate constructive discussion throughout the university and with society, and universities must also continue to engage more structurally with sustainable development.

In particular, the practice of mobility programmes must be evaluated against the backdrop of environmental impact, but not exclusively. The rationale behind mobility and its added value should more consistently be taken into account. The debate should not continue questioning only the environmental dimension of whether ‘to fly or not to fly’ when engaging in international activities.

Instead, higher education institutions must carefully evaluate the reason for which such an environmental impact is necessary, as well as the social and political sustainability of the action.

The development of virtual internationalisation opens the door for collaboration without travel, but not everything can be done virtually, so it is fundamental to understand what can be done virtually and what on the other hand necessitates some form of mobility. Doing virtually what can be done virtually, and physically what cannot be done virtually should be a guiding principle.

Weighing internationalisation and sustainable development activities needs to go deeper, and the two have to be seen as complementary rather than opposing dynamics at higher education institutions.

Internationalisation efforts are fundamental to educate the next generation of responsible ‘glocal’ citizens who hold the potential to overcome the global challenges of tomorrow and complete the quest for a sustainable future.

Students are looking for engagement opportunities that allow them to exchange with peers in international contexts but are also challenging university leadership to take more environmental and social responsibility. They are willing to learn, but they are also ready and willing to make informed decisions themselves.

A different kind of internationalisation

At the IAU, we believe that sustainable and inclusive internationalisation should not be reduced to a new version of academic mobility, marked by the motive of a smaller carbon footprint. Instead, we should focus on the learning experience and ask how a different kind of internationalisation could contribute not only to making the institution more sustainable but how it could contribute to achieving the SDGs.

Internationalisation is more than mobility, and sustainability is more than climate action. For our collective efforts to be the most efficient, we need education and research spanning different disciplines to help find solutions to the complex challenges identified by the SDGs.

Isabel Toman is programme officer for higher education and sustainable development at the International Association of Universities (IAU). In her position, she collaborates with UNESCO and other partners and serves as the IAU Global HESD Cluster network coordinator. E-mail: Giorgio Marinoni is manager of higher education and internationalisation policy and projects of the IAU. E-mail: Margaret Harris is communications and media officer at the IAU. E-mail: The IAU is pleased to be a partner for the University World News SDGs Hub – a special section to report on higher education’s activities for the SDGs and related topics.