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The internationalization of higher education (IoHE) is a relatively new but broad and varied phenomenon shaped over the past 25 years by the globalisation of our economies and societies and the increased importance of knowledge for sustaining them. IoHE is driven by a dynamic combination of constantly evolving political, economic, socio-cultural and academic rationales. Motivations take on different forms and dimensions in different regions and countries and in different institutions and programs. There is no single model that fits all nations. Regional and national contexts are varied and changing, and the same is true of their universities.

Recent surveys such as the Global Survey on Internationalization administered by the International Association of Universities IAU) and similar surveys by the European University Association (EUA) and the European Association for International Education (EAIE) indicate that the majority of institutions of higher education in Europe (and increasingly elsewhere in the world) have an explicit internationalization policy and increasingly integrate internationalization as a key pillar of their overall institutional mission and strategies. But at the national level, such strategies and policies were rather absent until recently. A study completed for the European Parliament, a project of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalization (CHEI) in partnership with the IAU, and another by the EAIE have analysed seventeen national policies— ten from Europe and seven from the rest of the world. The study identified ten key developments reflecting the increased interest of national governments to internationalize their higher education sector:

  1. Growing importance of internationalization at all levels (broader range of activities, more strategic approaches, emerging national strategies and ambitions);
  2. Increase in institutional strategies for internationalization (but also risks of homogenisation, focus on quantitative results only);
  3. Challenge of funding everywhere; 
  4. Trend towards increased privatisation in IoHE with the intention of revenue generation for multiple parties; 
  5. Competitive pressures of globalisation, with increasing convergence of aspirations, if not yet actions; 
  6. Evident shift from (only) cooperation to (more) competition; 
  7. Emerging regionalisation, with Europe often seen as an example; 
  8. The number of international activities is rising everywhere, with challenge of quantity versus quality; 
  9. Lack of sufficient data for comparative analysis and decision-making; 
  10. Emerging areas of focus are: internationalization of the curriculum, transnational education and digital learning.

Internationalization has now become a mainstream issue at the national level in most countries of the world, and particularly in Europe. The rhetoric speaks of more comprehensive and strategic policies for internationalization, but in reality there is still a long way to go in most cases. Even in Europe, seen around the world for best-practices in internationalization, there is still much to be done, and there is an uneven degree of accomplishment across the different countries, with significant challenges in Southern and, especially, Central and Eastern Europe.

Most national strategies, including within Europe, are still predominantly focused on mobility, short-term and/or long-term economic gains, recruitment and/or training of talented students and scholars, and international reputation and visibility. This implies that far greater efforts are still needed to incorporate these approaches into more comprehensive strategies, in which internationalization of the curriculum and learning outcomes as a means to enhance the quality of education and research, receive more attention.

The study concludes that the future in Europe looks potentially bright, but further positive development and impact will only occur if the various stakeholders and participants maintain an open dialogue about rationales, benefits, means, opportunities and obstacles in this ongoing process of change. And one cannot ignore the fact that Internationalization of Higher Education is also being challenged by increasingly profound social, economic and cultural issues, such as the financial crisis spreading across Europe, unfavourable demographic trends, immigration and the growing ethnic and religious tensions. Some of these negative trends have become particularly evident during the past few months, such as government policies in China and Russia that block open collaboration and exchange. That internationalization in many national policies is viewed primarily as a scheme to serve national interests——capacity building, talent recruitment, income generation, national security and so on—is understandable. But internationalization without open lines and unimpeded linkages operates in contradiction to its generally accepted intentions and objectives that are to promote cooperation and exchange across borders.


The study, edited by Hans de Wit, Fiona Hunter, Eva Egron-Polak and Laura Howard is available as: European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies (Ed.). 2015. Internationalisation of Higher Education.

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