Graduate Programs Have International Bent but Struggle to Produce Global Thinkers

December 07, 2012

While other industries talk about globalizing, higher education, particularly in the United States, has long been heavily international, drawing students and faculty members from around the world. Still, universities, here and elsewhere, need to do more to ensure that the next generation of scholars and researchers has an international perspective and the ability to work in diverse settings, said speakers at the annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools.

Such skills are increasingly important as classrooms fill with even more international students and as many academics pursue careers abroad. They are equally crucial, speakers at the four-day conference noted, for the growing number of doctorate recipients who pursue careers outside the academe.

But as Liviu Matei, senior vice president of Central European University, in Hungary, pointed out, although universities around the world face a common challenge in cultivating globally minded graduates, the solutions may differ by institution, country, and region. For example, efforts to encourage student mobility within Europe have led to a "brain drain" for institutions like his, in the former Soviet bloc, as talented homegrown students who choose to study elsewhere in Europe outnumber Western Europeans who go to universities in Central and Eastern Europe.

Likewise, Brazil plans to send more than 100,000 students abroad, many at the graduate level, on government scholarships through its new Science Without Borders program. But what of those students who don't go overseas? How will they get an international experience? said Vahan Agopyan, provost for postgraduate studies at the University of São Paulo. Unlike the United States, where fully a third of doctoral students are foreign-born, most students in Brazil's graduate programs are Brazilian and plan to pursue their academic careers there.

Despite significant international enrollments, North American universities don't always do a good job of using the presence of international students and faculty members to globalize their campuses, several speakers said. Foreign graduate students can too easily become "ghettoized" in their academic programs and research, said Graham Carr, vice president for research and graduate studies at Concordia University, in Montreal.

And few American and Canadian students go abroad, either to pursue a degree or for a shorter period during graduate studies. The National Science Foundation recently announced that it was expanding its premier graduate research fellowship to give students the opportunity to spend a year working in a university laboratory in another country. Likewise, Canada's grant-making councils provide scholarship funds for its students to go overseas, but some of that money goes unused, said Noreen Golfman, dean of graduate studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Part of a Graduate Education

That suggests money alone isn't the solution, said Ms. Golfman, who argued universities need to convey that acquiring a global perspective is part and parcel of a graduate education. But that message has been undercut as universities have reduced financial support for foreign-language study, consolidated or closed departments, and dropped second-language requirements for doctoral programs in the humanities. Lawrence H. Summers, a former Harvard University president and treasury secretary, recently suggested that American college students don't need to learn a second language because English has become the lingua franca.

"The North American system discourages competency in more than language," Ms. Golfman said.

One institution bucking the trend is Concordia, an English-language university in a predominantly French-speaking province, which provides free French courses to all graduate students. The university also has begun to offer small stipends to encourage graduate students to go abroad, Mr. Carr said.

While traditional study-abroad programs, at the undergraduate level, emphasize the benefits of the cultural experience, graduate students need to see additional value in participating, such as the opportunity to do research overseas and expand professional networks, Mr. Carr said. One way to accomplish that, said Patrick S. Osmer, vice provost and graduate dean at Ohio State University, is to encourage faculty members to involve their graduate students in international research projects.

Both Ohio State and the University of Hong Kong are creating new joint- and dual-degree programs with foreign universities to give graduate students a clear path to study in more than one country.

Still, impediments remain. Dissimilar academic structures from country to country can make it difficult to create joint programs. Family commitments or cultural constraints may keep women from pursuing doctorates abroad, even as more earn college degrees. Students in shorter master's-degree programs may not have time to spend part of their studies abroad. And as many universities seek to get students to complete Ph.D. programs more quickly, even some advocates worry that adding a global experience could unduly prolong doctoral studies. (Mr. Carr, however, noted that Concordia graduate students in mathematics who study at three universities as part of an Europe-sponsored Erasmus Mundus program actually earn their degrees more quickly than do their peers.)

For those reasons, graduate-school deans need to find ways to make global learning inherent in all degree programs, Memorial University's Ms. Golfman said. "We need to think about building global competency into every program, not just make it an add-on."