As academic leaders around the world rush to expand their international agendas, they must also be aware of “potentially adverse unintended consequences,” says a new statement issued by the International Association of Universities.
The document – the result of a year of deliberations among academic leaders – embraces the idea that higher education benefits from internationalization. Global ties should lead to "enduring academic benefits," it says, including improved teaching and research, “deeper engagement” with issues in all parts of the world, and student access to programs unavailable in their home countries.
Such benefits are regularly hailed in reports from national or international higher education groups. Less common may be the list of unintended consequences outlined in this statement, from a group whose 604 members include many universities from the developing world. But the statement may be quite timely. The last year has seen intensifying debates over how international students are recruited, fears in some countries over the use of English in academe, and criticisms of Western institutions that set up branch campuses in parts of the world that lack a full commitment to civil liberties.
The unintended consequences identified include:
- Language centralization. "The prevalence of English, though driven by the advantages of having a common medium of communication, has the potential to diminish the diversity of languages studied or used to deliver higher education," the statement says. "The widespread use of English may thus lead to cultural homogenization and finding solutions for these adverse impacts, even though recognized, is difficult.”
- A "single model" of university. "Global competition may diminish the diversity of institutional models of what constitutes quality higher education," says the association. "The pursuit of a single model of excellence -- embodied in the notion of a ‘world-class university’ -- usually narrowly defined as excellence in research, may result in the concentration of scarce national resources in a few or a single institution to the detriment of a diverse national system of higher education institutions, fit for diverse national purposes.
- Brain drain. "Brain drain may continue or even accelerate, undermining the capacity of developing countries and their institutions to retain the talent needed for their prosperity, cultural advancement, and social well being," the report says.
- Poor recruitment of international students. The statement warns of “questionable and even unethical practices,” and "misconceptions about decreased opportunities for domestic students."
- Questions about the viability of branch campuses. "The growth of transnational programs and creation of branch campuses raises a number of questions, including how these enhance the educational capacity of host nations over the long-term, and how able they are to deliver on the promise of an education comparable to that delivered by the sponsoring institution in its home country. A foreign educational presence, with its perceived prestige, has the potential to disadvantage local higher education institutions striving to respond to national needs,” the association statement says.
- Obsession over rankings. "As the pursuit of institutional reputation, stimulated by rankings, gains in importance among the goals of internationalization, the selection of international partners may be driven more by the desire to gain prestige by association than by actual interest in cooperation," the statement says.
- Unequal relationships. "The asymmetry of relations between institutions, based on access to resources for the development and implementation of internationalization strategies, can lead to the pursuit of goals that advantage the better-resourced institutions and can result in unevenly shared benefits," the statement says.
The statement calls for international academic leaders to be more cognizant of these issues, and suggests that the best way to do so is with an emphasis on academic values.
Colleges and universities setting up international programs should show a "commitment to promote academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and social responsibility,” the statement says. Further, they should pursue "socially responsible practices locally and internationally, such as equity in access and success, and non-discrimination."
In setting up collaborations, the statement calls on universities in developed nations to affirm the idea of "reciprocal benefits," and to consider the "fairness" to all parties and all countries.
The association statement says that the group will look for ways to makes sure these principles are not seen as "slogans" or "vague abstractions," but rather are the basis for university actions.