Internationalization Innovation Is Coming From the Developing World

Higher education in emerging and developing countries struggles between past colonial influences and current challenges as the sector defines its social role in an increasingly competitive environment.

February 26, 2017

Attention to the international dimension of higher education is increasingly visible as national and institutional agendas rise to the challenge of globalization and its opportunities. Yet, in the current globally-interdependent, knowledge-based societies, the concept of internationalization of higher education has itself become globalized.  This demands consideration of the impact of internationalization on policy and practice as more countries and types of institutions engage in the process. Internationalization should no longer be viewed only in terms of a westernized, largely Anglo-Saxon, and predominantly English-speaking paradigm. Notions of importing and exporting countries are being turned upside down as students choose study destinations in countries that were once only sending students to the ‘west’ to study. Global mobility flows are increasingly complex, offering new opportunities for those able and willing to access them. At the same time, new countries are emerging as key players and challenging the dominance of western discourse on internationalization. Parallel to rising student demand for overseas study, is the globalization of employment and the expectations of employers that university graduates will be cross-culturally competent, ideally with prior international experience. Yet the current political climate, defined by Brexit, the Trump administration, anti-European integration, anti-immigration and anti-globalization, serves as a drag on this trend. In the concluding chapter of our book, The Globalization of Internationalization, Emerging Voices and Perspectives,  we reflect on this development, stimulated by contributions from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and periphery countries in Europe.

In addition to benefits, there is increasing awareness of the risks internationalization may bring. One of the main risks is that internationalization is perceived as strengthening the dominance of the existing power of regions, nations and institutions in international higher education. Will new regional alliances like the BRICS become an alternative to the European Union and the United State?   Will the creation of post-cold war political and economic blocks provide a new focus for higher education institutions and national higher education systems? Will institutions from Asia, Latin America and Africa compete as world class-universities in rankings and achieve comparable brands? Will forms of South-South cooperation emerge as alternatives to the current unequal North-South partnerships?

As countries in the developing world open up to internationalization and enter into partnerships with western institutions, their reflections on practice and outcomes offer significant learning opportunities for those with longer histories. We certainly see a trend towards the homogenization of activities, approaches, policies and strategies, similar to those in the industrialized world. This is, to a great extent, driven by economic rationales and increased competitiveness, as well as the role of rankings and the indicators used to measure internationalization—number of international students, number of international scholars, number of mobile students and staff and number of internationally co-authored publications. These indicators tend to drive governments and institutional leaders in higher education to focus on these quantitative targets and policies to realize them, such as teaching in English, fee policies, increased focus on research and marketing strategies, etc. Little space is left for new and innovative ideas for internationalization strategy, embedded in the local and institutional context.

From the chapters in our book we have identified several thematic trends— the need to align internationalization in higher education with initiatives in K-12 education; the increasing importance of social responsibility in internationalization policies such as the role of higher education in the refugee crisis, in post-conflict situations and initiatives for the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups in society; regional cooperation between higher education in emerging and developing countries; and the role of internationalization in national and institutional development.

Lessons to learn

In efforts to become more internationally relevant and engaged, higher education in emerging and developing countries struggles between past colonial influences and current challenges as the sector defines its social role in an increasingly competitive environment. In this complex context regions, countries and institutions have to make choices that balance their local, national, regional and global roles. The inclination is to follow the same pathways established by higher education in the developed world, but that is no guarantee for success. Universities have to respond to the questions we posed at the beginning, not simply on the basis of how successful they can be in competition with the developed world, but on how they can operate successfully in their local and regional contexts and make a meaningful and responsible contributions to the society they serve. Internationalization strategies can be shaped either towards international competition or  more social responsability.

The first way is difficult, requires substantive public and private investment and risks increasing the social divide. In the developed and the developing world, the main focus of internationalization policy and action continues to focus on mobility, in particular, student mobility, and quality assurance in this area is weak. This focus on mobility is not inclusive but rather elitist, only reaching a small minority of students and academics. 

The second way, towards a more socially responsible approach isn’t easy either and also requires substantial public and private resources, but is more socially inclusive and in the long run, will result in a higher quality sector. It implies a stronger attention to internationalization at home and of the curriculum. It should align with other levels of education, and give greater priority to the international dimensions of social responsibility. That approach is needed more than ever given the current political climate in the US and Europe. Considering the political trends in these regions, socially responsible innovation in internationalization will more likely come from the emerging and developing world.

Hans de Wit is the Director of the Center for International Higher Education and Research Professor of Higher Education at Boston College.

Elspeth Jones is Emerita Professor of the Internationalisation of Higher Education at Leeds Beckett University and Series Editor of Internationalisation in Higher Education (Rutledge).  She is also Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan.

Jocelyne Gacel-Ávila is General Coordinator of the UNESCO Regional Observatory on Internationalization and Networks for Tertiary Education in Latin america and the Caribbean, and Vice Dean of the Research Division for Social Sciences and Humanities, and professor Ph.D. program Higher Education, at the University of Guadalajara.

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