Internationalization for Everyone?
Sadly, international strategies are too often relegated to a single office and limited to the mobility of students, international research collaboration, more international publications, and all too often, better positioning in the rankings. This just leaves out too many people.
In the past couple of months I have attended two conferences on internationalization strategy, one in Colombia and the other in México. In Colombia the Ministry of Education is including internationalization as something to be considered in the accreditation process. The state government of Guanajuato in Mexico is developing a statewide strategy for the internationalization of higher education with funding available to encourage initiatives.
So what, then, do these initiatives mean when they propose to encourage the internationalization of higher education? Sadly, all the usual stuff—mobility of students, international research collaboration, more international publications, and all too often, better positioning in the rankings. But these activities will only incorporate a very small percentage of institutions, students and professors in Latin America and overlook the rest.
Latin America has experienced extraordinary massification during the last several decades. The result has been the creation of many new public and private institutions. Many of these institutions operate with limited (if not precarious) funding and often serve lower-income students who are the first in their family to attend a university and many, who contribute vital income to their family. It is unlikely that mobility on any significant scale or international research will be either relevant to the mission of these institutions or feasible. What then, does internationalization mean for these institutions, the students who attend them, and the professors who teach for them? Let’s hope that it doesn’t leave them out.
If we can agree that all of us are citizens of a globalized world and subject to the consequences of activities and decisions taken far away from where we reside, then experiencing an “internationalized” higher education is necessary for everyone. I suggest that the internationalization of higher education must be fundamental to the debate, taking place worldwide, about the purposes of higher education. It is a key element of the answer to “what is the objective of a university education?” This “rethink” of internationalization has been advocated by Han de Wit, Fiona Hunter, and others at the forefront of the internationalization discussion and was presented in a recent special issue of International Higher Education. And this responsibility is much too big and complex to be relegated to a satellite office and small staff under the umbrella of “International Programs Office” or “International Students and Scholars Office.”
This somewhat different conception of internationalization involves integrating new strategies at the institutional level. This approach has significant implications for curriculum design, learning objectives and pedagogy. There are many strategies to integrate internationalization and, fortunately, many of these initiatives overlap with other imperatives universities are being asked to address.
Employers have been insisting for some time that young professionals need “soft skills” in additional to disciplinary and professional knowledge. The skills sought include the ability to communicate effectively, to listen to the ideas of others, to collaborate with others, to respond to unexpected challenges, etc. These skills are fundamental to the cultivation of “globally competent” students who, whether they leave their home country or not, are almost certainly going to need to be able to work effectively with others whose prior experience, values, and perspectives are different from their own—whether from different cultures within the same nation or citizens of other countries.
“Soft skills” are unlikely to be learned in a lecture hall, nor from courses focused entirely on disciplinary theory, historical content, or formulae. These skills are more likely to result from classes that are highly interactive and from course content that considers issues from different points of view or that offer different means of analysis leading to different conclusions. In other words, students need to be engaged in a learning process that goes beyond the dynamic of right and wrong answers.
Of course internationalization is more complex then teaching methodology, but developing the capacity to accept and work with differences and respond to the unexpected, would be an important step towards providing more university students with the basic skills they will need to function in a globalized world. Changing the classroom dynamic will require considerable support to professors whose own education was acquired in a lecture hall and who, despite being willing, may not know how to transition to new interactive pedagogy. But efforts to develop new strategies for improving teaching and learning are already underway on most campuses.
In addition, universities should be exploiting local resources that would put students in contact with international ventures and individuals without the need to travel. It is difficult to imagine cities anywhere without international offices or factories headquartered nearby. In the case of México, these ventures are scattered throughout the country, not only located in major cities. Additionally, there are professionals from dozens of countries, now retired, and living in Mexico. These are circumstances that provide opportunities for all kinds of interaction that could range from inviting foreign nationals to give talks on campus, to mentorship programs, to site visits, to internships.
There are many more strategies to be considered, but the key here is how to develop new and important capabilities for universities that do not require travel abroad. That would be significant progress towards internationalization for everyone.
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