What is the purpose of international higher education?

The question about the purpose of higher education has been traditionally discussed and debated by several scholars in two related ways.

The first way involves debates that centre on the Humboldtian ideals of the pursuit of knowledge and the cultivation of critical consciousness and development of character, and is the foundation of the Western-espoused purpose of education.

In the second, Humboldt’s distinctions between special (vocational) and general bildung (education) underpin questions about whether the purpose of higher education as a civil, political and moral practice has been replaced by training and the quest for economic security, as some scholars have argued.

Crucially, the traditional Western ideal of general bildung has educational, social and political dimensions, related to citizenship, as well as an economic
function within nation states.

Hence, there is a lack of a clear understanding of what the purpose is of international cross-border higher education, at a global level, since the dominant foundational conceptualisation of the purpose of education excludes non-citizens, including international students and staff.

Similarly, internationalisation largely remains framed from a Western cultural lens, prioritising the English language as the lingua franca of higher education and promoting a ubiquitous market-driven economic rationality.

This therefore begs the existential question – what is the purpose of international higher education?

From a political to economic rationale

It is important to make a distinction between ‘purpose’ and ‘rationale’. Purpose is the reason why something is done or what it intends to achieve. This has an overarching philosophical meaning. By comparison, rationale means reasons underpinning a particular course of action(s).

At the macro level (institutional and national) the well-known rationales for internationalisation are educational, economic, social/cultural and political.

Historically, the political rationale for international education stemmed from the development of the nation state and was the result of colonial expansion and the consequent imposition of European models of higher education on colonies around the world. The influence of the Western canon in such colonies remains until the present day.

As noted by Hans de Wit, the change in emphasis from the political to the economic rationale started after the end of the Cold War.

Nonetheless, the emphasis on either economic or political rationales is usually linked to the prevailing political climate and the proclivities of powerful actors with vested interests.

At the micro (individual) level, I have proposed a different lens based on a student rationale for internationalisation. This would be based on educational, economic, experiential and aspirational factors that encapsulate both intrinsic and instrumental factors.

There are similarities in the rationales for internationalisation at the macro and micro levels, and key differences. The educational rationale is comparable at the macro and micro levels in that institutions aim to deliver excellent education that international students are keen to receive.

The well-discussed economic rationale at the macro level is driven by neoliberal marketisation. This echoes international students’ employability aspirations. But there are two critical differences.

Firstly, there is an overabundance of data that captures the economic contributions of international students to the host institutions and countries. By contrast, there is a dearth of empirical evidence to support causal linkages between study abroad and employability.

Secondly, international study is costly. Cost constraint is therefore another dimension of the economic rationale for international students. The narrative around the cost of international education as a barrier for participation is, however, mostly omitted from mainstream discussions.

Decolonisation of international higher education

Capturing the aspirational and experiential dimension in the student rationales framework are two key areas where there remains a gap in linking micro and macro rationales in internationalisation policy and practice.

The social/cultural rationale is less discussed. This can be linked to deeper underlying factors related to which cultures are valued and the extent to which different cultures are recognised in internationalised learning environments. This highlights that the normalised and dominant conceptualisation and enactment of international higher education has a hegemonic Western orientation.

That is problematic for cross-border education, when diverse nationalities converge within nation-bound spaces, without a clear mutually aligned sense of comparable contribution to internationalising their learning experiences.

Growing scholarly discussions around neo-colonisation, post-colonialism and decolonisation in relation to international higher education are considered to be promising contributions towards re-imagining the field, but change is barely perceptible, yet.

Nonetheless, hope is essential in the face of persistent inequalities in international higher education, and what Professor Simon Marginson describes as “the global order in higher education and science [that] has continued to march on with scarcely a blink, despite the critiques” of normative Western hegemonic epistemic constructions of knowledge.

Dr Omolabake Fakunle is chancellor’s fellow and director of equality, diversity and inclusion in Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. This article was prepared for discussion at the Center for International Higher Education’s recent 2023 conference.