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In 2018, the International Association of Universities (IAU) conducted its Global Survey on Internationalization of higher education, the fifth in a series that began in 2003. It is also the first one that reflects the changing political climate in many parts of the world. In the following essay, we note several of the patterns that appeared with specific attention to North America.

The 5thIAU Global Survey collected responses from 907 higher education institutions (HEIs) from 126 countries.  An interesting picture of internationalization of higher education emerges from the analysis of the results.

The majority of HEIs that replied to the survey attached a high level of importance to internationalization, an increase over the last three years. However, this increase happened mainly in HEIs where the level was already high, not at HEIs where the level was low. This portends growing differentiation in the level of commitment to internationalization among HEIs.

Inherent in this growing divide is of the perception that internationalization is limited by resources. The main institutional risk identified by respondents is in concern that, “International opportunities are accessible only to students with financial means”. This might reflect the concern that many people are left out of globalization and that institutions are not sufficiently inclusive in their internationalization strategy. 

On the benefit side, for the first time in the history of the IAU Global Surveys, “enhanced international cooperation and capacity building” has been identified as the most important expected benefit of internationalization at global level, in all regions except North America. The stronger emphasis on international collaboration might be a reaction to current nationalist political trends and to the past when competition (international student recruitment, rankings, publications) was the primary driver of internationalization initiatives. Capacity building might relate to lack of staff commitment to internationalization and lack of staff expertise, referenced as a key obstacle to successful internationalization in other surveys like the 2018 EAIE Barometer on internationalization in Europe. 

It would be interesting to investigate in more detail the possible correlation between the awareness by HEIs of the risk of growing inequalities and the expected benefit of “enhanced international cooperation and capacity building” and why this is perceived as less beneficial in North America. 

A strategic approach to internationalization is becoming more common around the world. However, it is not reality at all HEIs yet. The incorporation of an internationalization strategy as an institutional priority is becoming more common along with infrastructure to implement it. However, not all HEIs allocate the necessary financial resources or conduct the necessary monitoring and evaluation to have a strategic approach to internationalization “in place.”

North America the exception to the rule

Regionalization has emerged from the survey results as a priority in all regions except North America. This is not surprising when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been dismissed by the current government and regional cooperation is diminishing with each passing month and insult from the US president. Interestingly, other regions see collaboration within their own region as their highest priority followed by Europe and then North America. 

In many aspects North America diverges from the global trend as internationalization in North America continues to focus primarily on student mobility, especially on the recruitment of international students. The decline in student numbers in the US and the growth in Canada might maintain this strategy as the highest priority in the immediate future.

North America is the region reflecting the greatest political and economic change taking place in the world and the perception of internationalization at HEIs in the US is affected by these transformations. HEIs in North America appear to be the most advanced in implementing relatively new dimensions of internationalization, such as transnational education, on-line and distance learning, and joint degrees.

The conclusions to be drawn about trends in North America should be made cautiously as the response rate to the survey from North America was low and does not allow a high level of statistical relevance.

Student mobility still the dominant focus

Student mobility, incoming or outgoing, credit or degree mobility, remain the top priority and focus of internationalization in all regions followed by strategic partnerships and international research collaboration.

These results highlight a mismatch between the expected benefit of “enhanced international cooperation and capacity building” and the concern for inequitable participation as a continuing challenge and risk. In fact, despite the awareness, HEIs continue to focus on mobility in ways that not only maintain inequality but increase it.

While funding remains the major obstacle to progress identified by respondents to the survey, the results reflect increased funding for all internationalization activities during the last three years at a majority of HEIs.

The aim of the 5thIAU Global Survey was to capture a big picture of internationalization of higher education around the world at a particular moment in time. Of course, internationalization is a vast subject with the result that the 5thIAU Global Survey could not go into great depth in all areas. Moreover, the results of the 5thIAU Global Survey invite more questions than provide answers, but this should provide a solid base for further research on the internationalization of higher education and its consequences. It will be interesting to see how the changing political climate in the world and in North America will impact the direction of internationalization in higher education in coming years and the next survey.

The full report of the 5thIAU Global Survey will be published by DUZ Academic Publishers in the upcoming months.


Giorgio Marinoni is manager, higher education and internationalization policy and projects of the International Association of Universities (IAU).

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College and member of the IAU Advisory committee for the 5th IAU Global Survey on Internationalization of Higher Education.

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