Internationalization, more than revenue

Internationalization should be much more than student recruitment to generate revenue.

April 6, 2016

Over the past weeks some interesting commentaries have been made about the state of internationalization and the dominance of international student recruitment. In his article in University World News, (based on his inaugural Burton R Clark Lecture at the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Global Higher Education) Gary Rhoades notes that in a study of six universities in the UK, US and South Africa that “ the four UK and US universities studied are setting their sights on the same privileged populations of well-resourced students from China and India interested in the private purposes and consumption value of higher education.” In contrast, he observes that South African universities “clearly evidence an orientation to regional student markets as well as to contributing to nation and continent building for South Africa and for Africa, partly by serving as an intellectual hub and partly by engaging in projects aimed at enhancing life in the region.” He concludes: “ the “academic capitalism” that is expressed in recruiting international students for revenue is turning universities away from their public purpose, including the public good of internationalisation aimed at enhancing the collective quality of life for communities locally, nationally and globally.”

The strong focus on recruiting international students for revenue generation as the key rationale for internationalization is not unique to the four universities of the UK and US he studied, but is manifest in many other universities as well as national policies. Governments and international agencies such as IDP in Australia and associations such as  NAFSA in the US, proudly publish figures touting the economic contribution international students make to national and institutional revenue in their country.

South Africa, mentioned by Gary Rhoades as a positive exception, was not unique until recently. While the UK and Australia have for more than 40 years had a policy to see international students as a source of revenue, other countries treated them the same as their own students. Only over the past decade can we see other countries moving in the direction of the UK, US,and Australia. Canada, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and recently Finland have started to introduce full cost fees for international students. Germany and Norway are two of the few exceptions among the developed countries.

The role of higher education in capacity building and as a public good in the international context is more common in the developing world than in the so-called North, but one can wonder if the emerging economies, such as the BRICS, will continue in that vein that much longer— Russia is beginning to look to international students as a source of revenue.

In an interesting statement in Pienews, Vicenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice-chancellor of Global Engagement at the University of Reading states that “it’s clear that too often internationalization within our universities is too narrowly defined as the inward mobility of international students, and then generally only for the economic benefit they bring.” 

In whatever country or region of the world where I discuss the internationalization of higher education, there is always a discrepancy between what governments and institution leaders express—development of global citizenships, internationalization for all— and what they do. The main focus is almost always on the recruitment of international students and (related to this policy) to develop programs in English and increase their position in the international rankings. What contribution they make to the public good by doing so and how it helps their local students to become global citizens remains in doubt.  One can wonder if in the long run this focus on revenue generation from elite, rich international students is sustainable. The development of higher education capacity in the developing world, the political and economic instability, the limited capacity of families that can afford international education, all make the long-term predictability of revenue generation pretty uncertain and certainly, unstable. Recent data from China show already a slowing of the growth in students going abroad.

Study abroad is important, in general, and certainly for developing countries. But with a focus on revenue generation, only a very small elite will benefit, and from a capacity building perspective that is not enough and also not wise. It can only be hoped that in the end the higher education sector becomes aware, in the words of Vincenzo Raimo, that “if we want longer term sustainability then we need a more encompassing approach which thinks about the curricula and our environment and how relevant they are to the communities of staff and students we welcome to our universities, and how they and we support all of them in developing a wider perspective on the world.” It cannot be repeated enough, internationalization should be much more than student recruitment to generate revenue. 



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