'The End of Internationalization?'

June 3, 2011

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Is the internationalization of higher education suffering from a midlife crisis? Jane Knight, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, posed that question during a standing-room only session provocatively titled “The End of Internationalization?” Thursday at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference.

“Or are we having an identity crisis? Or are we losing its true north? Are we losing some of the key values about what is behind and supporting and guiding internationalization?”

Panelists at the session argued that as internationalization has moved from a fringe to core university activity, it remains imperative for professionals to scrutinize what they’re working toward and why. Every university now says it wants to be “international,” but what does that mean -- as Knight said, “internationalization has become a catch-all phrase for everything” -- and to what end?

“Internationalization is not a goal in itself,” said Uwe Brandenburg, a consultant with the Centre for Higher Education, in Germany. “It’s a means to an end. It’s an instrument to achieve something. It’s not good just because it’s international.” Instead of looking at internationalization as its own end, Brandenburg said, universities should focus on the way it contributes to improving teaching, learning, research, innovation and civic engagement.

Brandenburg was particularly critical of a sole focus on numbers – on increasing study abroad or international student enrollments to X or Y percentages, say. By way of example he cited an analysis by his center finding that 66 percent of international engineering students in Germany do not graduate, raising the question, as he put it: “Why did we get them in the first place? Is it good to have them and to brag that you have 60 percent international students or 40 or 20, but not [focus on] what is your graduation rate?”

He continued: “My favorite useless B.S. indicator is the number of partnerships. Every university can tell you how many partnerships they have. 241. 358. The number means nothing. [The same for] percentage of international students. What does it mean? Why do you want to have 50? Why do you want to have 20?”

“For what purpose? The ‘why’ behind these sheer numbers is something I miss sometimes.”

Knight proposed a deeper discussion about the values underlying internationalization of higher education, which she suggested have shifted over the years. These shifts, she said, have been from cooperation to competition, mutual benefit to self-interest, exchange and partnership to commercial trade and activity, and, as illustrated by the rise in influence of global rankings, from capacity-building to status- or prestige-building.

The speakers on Thursday’s panel could be described as friendly critics, deeply engaged in the field of international education themselves. But, said Hans de Wit, a professor of internationalization at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam, University of Applied Sciences, and co-editor of The Journal of Studies in International Education, “We have ignored the debate about what are we doing, why are we doing it, and how are we doing it.”

Reiterating Brandenburg’s point, he said, “Internationalization is not a goal itself," but a way to improve quality of education, research, etc. "If we take that as a foundation and debate from there, we’ll get somewhere.”

Nearly 9,000 international educators have gathered for the NAFSA conference, which continues through today.

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