National Policies for Internationalization – Do They Work?

Will national internationalization policies ultimately achieve their short- and long-term, goals?  Only time will tell.  But perhaps the bigger question is what the overall impact of such policies will be on higher education worldwide.

January 10, 2016

We recently tackled the question of national policies and other issues in a report produced by our respective organizations, the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement and the Boston College Center for International Higher Education.  We first gathered examples of policies from around the world – no small task, it turns out – and developed a categorization scheme to make sense of the wide variety we encountered.  In the end, we sorted the policies into five main types, based on their primary focus:

  • Student mobility. Policies designed to encourage and facilitate student mobility truly stand out as the most common focal point for policymaking related to internationalization of higher education. A broad array of nationally funded student mobility scholarship programs—from Saudi Arabia to Chile, Kazakhstan to Brazil, among many others—are the prime manifestations of this policy focus.
  • Scholar mobility and research collaboration. Policy activity in this area is being undertaken by many countries around the world, as well as by key regions—notably Europe, where the European Union is investing heavily in this area under the Horizon 2020 initiative, and specifically through such mechanisms as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions. Common types of initiatives in this category include support for visiting scholars, programs and grants to send faculty abroad, policies to repatriate faculty living in other countries, and project-based research grants.
  • Cross-border education. Whether involving branch campuses and other kinds of physical “outposts,” or virtual (or hybrid) forms, such as MOOCs, national policy and program activity in this realm includes initiatives to foster partnerships for capacity building, create educational “hubs,” encourage domestic institutions to establish campuses and programs abroad, and more effectively regulate cross-border activity in practice.
  • Internationalization at home (IaH). IaH is a nascent but rapidly emerging critical focal point for internationalization. Few policy documents currently address it overtly. The European Commission’s 2013 strategy for internationalization, European Higher Education in the World, is a notable exception. But, this is surely an important space to watch for future policy developments.
  • “Comprehensive internationalization” policies. We see a small number of initiatives that present a rather sweeping set of rationales, action lines, focus areas, and/or geographic orientations, rather than being singularly focused on specific action lines. Again, the European Commission’s policy vision for internationalization stands out, but so does Canada’s “International Education Strategy” (2014) and Malaysia’s “Internationalization Policy for Higher Education Malaysia” (2011), among others.

Gathering and sorting policy examples is one thing— addressing questions of effectiveness and impact presents a much greater analytical challenge.  Understandably, quantifiable measurement of impact is most common. We know, for example, that the Finnish government’s strategy for the “Internationalization of Higher Education Institutions in Finland 2009-2015” included an enrollment goal of 20,000 non-Finnish degree students by 2015.  According to data from the Institute of International Education’s Project Atlas, the actual number for 2013-2014 was 19,886 – just over 100 students short of the 2015 goal.  Along similar lines, Malaysia’s 2011 Internationalization Policy included a goal of 200,000 international students studying in Malaysia by 2020; with 135,502 international students enrolled as of the end of 2014 – a 16.5% increase over the previous year – the country is, according to an education ministry official, on track to meet its 2020 goal.

However, when it comes to the more nebulous, longer-term outcomes and impact of such policies, specific data and clear answers about impact are fairly scarce.  This may be due to the sheer newness of many of the internationalization policies now in place around the world. In many other cases, evaluation of impact appears not be built in to policy implementation structures.

Though challenging to measure, our examination of policies worldwide suggests that policymakers should focus on several key factors in order to ensure significant impact:

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of government funding. As national budgets become tighter, governments often seek alternative funding sources to support their internationalization policies. In the U.S., for example, the White House and State Department’s “100,000 Strong” initiatives focusing on China and Latin America rely heavily on funding from diverse sources, including public-private partnerships, corporate sponsorship, donations, and support from foreign governments.  Funding diversity is fine, but an adequate base of government funding signals the importance of policies, and serves as a catalyst for other investment. And, when partner countries are involved, significant investment by just one government can lead to an unbalanced relationship that may jeopardize the success of the initiative and hinder future collaborations.
  • Engage the right players. We know from our analysis that many different actors are involved in the development and implementation of government-initiated internationalization policies.  Depending on the context, these may include regional bodies (e.g. the EU and Organization of American States), Ministries of Education, other government agencies and sub-agencies, and quasi-governmental organizations (e.g. CampusFrance, the China Scholarship Council).  Finding the right configuration of actors is important—some entities may find it difficult to implement alone a complex, multifaceted initiative, while, conversely, too many actors may lead to duplication of effort and inefficiencies that can diminish policy effectiveness.
  • Avoid undermining one policy with another. For most countries, the national policy environment is complex and interlocking. Initiatives undertaken in one area can have a direct influence on efforts being undertaken in other policy spheres. Classic examples in relation to internationalization include the intersection between national objectives to attract international students and scholars, and visa and immigration policies that control access to the country. If policies are developed and implemented in isolation from one another, or directly at cross-purposes, policy effectiveness will suffer.
  • Seek synergies between national and institution-level internationalization policies. Around the world, higher education institutions are developing their own internationalization policies, strategies, and initiatives, which may or may not take align with governmental efforts.  In the US, for example, public diplomacy is a key goal of State Department student mobility programs, which are a cornerstone of government-sponsored internationalization-related policies.  Yet ACE’s 2011 Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses study found that only 1% of surveyed US institutions cited participating in public diplomacy efforts as one of their main reasons for internationalization.  Direct communication between government agencies and higher education institutions can help both sides design policies and programs that capitalize on and further enhance each other’s efforts.

Will individual countries’ internationalization policies ultimately achieve their short- and long-term, goals?  Only time will tell.  But perhaps the bigger question is what the overall impact of such policies will be on higher education worldwide. Thee impact of country-level policies will be maximized when we find the synergies among them – when our policies are mutually supportive and reinforcing. 

This is not necessarily an easy task – it requires broad awareness of policies in place (something the ACE - CIHE report tries to provide), and dialogue among national and institutional policymakers.  In the report, we note that “ensuring that higher education around the world benefits from the best of what comprehensive, sustained, values-driven internationalization has to offer will take a great deal of creativity, substantial resources, and sheer hard work.”  Hard, yes—but, most certainly worthwhile.


Robin Matross Helms is the Associate Director of Research at the Center for Internationalization & Global Engagement at the American Council on Education.  Laura E. Rumbley is the Associate Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston Colege. 

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