A Big World Out There

Researchers survey the landscape of internationalization in higher education.

February 24, 2016

MONTREAL -- The senior administrators tasked with promoting and coordinating international activities on their university campuses are gathered here for the annual Association of International Education Administrators conference. On the agenda are sessions on a wide range of activities bundled up in the term “internationalization,” including student mobility, global learning, international partnerships, joint and dual degree programs, and cross-national research.

Internationalization is growing in importance at all levels, said Hans de Wit, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed). Universities are participating in a broader range of international activities than in the past, and they’re being increasingly strategic about it.

De Wit presented Tuesday during a session on national policies for internationalization on findings from a study commissioned by the European Parliament. Global trends he identified include challenges of funding "everywhere" -- for student scholarships, for international research, for investments in overseas branch campuses. He described the increasing movement toward privatization, with revenue generation viewed as a rationale for internationalization (the trend toward seeing international students as “cash cows”). De Wit cited the “competitive pressures of globalization” resulting in an “increasing convergence of aspirations,” and a shift in mentality from cooperation increasingly toward competition. Numbers are going up -- more students and faculty are crossing national borders, the number of publications with authors from multiple countries is increasing -- “but there is a tension between quantity and quality.”

Mobility is driving the international agenda, he said. The focus is often on recruiting international students and attracting talent. The emphasis is on economic gain, on rankings and reputation. What is missing, he said, is a more comprehensive approach to internationalization and a focus on internationalization of the curriculum and learning outcomes to enhance the quality of education and research.

"Internationalization is not a goal in itself," he said. "Internationalization is only a way to express what we have to do to increase the quality of what our main purposes are as institutions: research, teaching and service to society."

Another piece of research discussed on Tuesday was a report on national policies and programs for internationalizing higher education jointly produced by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and the American Council on Education. Robin Matross Helms, associate director of research for ACE's Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement, said that the goal of the report was to "take stock" of the wide range of national policies across the globe, the motivations for these policies and the main actors responsible for putting them into practice.

As Helms explained, the report provides a five-part typology for classifying these policies depending on their primary focus (student mobility, scholar mobility and research collaboration, cross-border education, internationalization at home, and comprehensive internationalization strategies) and similarly divides motivations for these policies into four main categories: academic motivations (expanding higher education capacity, improving higher education quality, prestige and rankings, knowledge creation and advancement); economic rationales (short-term economic gain, workforce development, long-term national economic development); political motivations (public diplomacy and "soft power," national security, and international development); and social//cultural rationales (addressing global problems, promoting global citizenship and mutual understanding).

The report also includes an analysis of the various actors who carry out and influence policy -- including regional government entities, national governmental agencies, quasi-governmental organizations, higher education associations, universities, students, and taxpayers.

Finally, the report includes numerous examples of specific policies around the globe that fall under each of the categories identified below.

Type Policy/Program
1. Student mobility  
Inbound mobility Grants/scholarships
  Visa policies
  Preferential admission policies
  "Study in" initiatives
Outbound mobility Grants/scholarships
  Financial aid policies
Bilateral or regional mobility Harmonization
  Networks, consortia and exchange agreements
  Intraregional scholarships
2. Scholar mobility and research collaboration Funding for visiting scholars
  Programs and grants to send faculty abroad
  Policies to repatriate faculty from abroad
  Project-based research grants
3. Cross-border education Partnerships for capacity building
  Campuses and programs abroad
4. Internationalization at home Internationalization of the curriculum
  Broad institutional engagement with internationalization
5. Comprehensive internationalization strategies Global strategies
  Strategies with a specific geographic focus

Laura Rumbley, of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education (and another Inside Higher Ed blogger), said that researchers didn’t attempt to determine the effectiveness of the many national policies they identified, but that they did seek to identify factors that could limit the effectiveness of policies. These include funding, approaches to implementation, the interplay and alignment between various internationalization-related policies (as one example, the report notes that a policy to recruit international students could be hobbled by restrictive visa policies), and the convergence between national policies and institutional interests. On the other hand, "clarity, commitment and flexibility" stood out as key elements of effective policies.

“Ultimately, the effectiveness of internationalization policies seems to derive from a starting point that is unequivocally rooted in three key notions: clarity, commitment and flexibility," the report on the research states. "A clear rationale and realistic vision provide the road map, outlining specific objectives in plausible terms. The stakeholders involved must possess the will to engage with the policy as implementers and advocates. Commitment also implies the provision (or cultivation) of necessary resources (human and otherwise) to sustain the effort. And finally, as issues and challenges arise, the policy framework and the stakeholders who are implicated in the effort to advance it must prove themselves able to respond with some degree of agility to a range of unexpected developments.”


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