In Talks at International Education Summit, Differences and Common Goals Emerge

May 03, 2012

Higher education has become increasingly international: Millions of students leave their home countries to study each year, faculty are increasingly mobile, and academic research is not bound by national borders.

And that calls for a more global approach to educational cooperation and international exchange, to elevate its profile in economic- and foreign-policy discussions, agreed more than 30 high-level delegates from 15 countries who gathered for two days of talks here. Even so, national needs and domestic priorities can complicate efforts to find common ground, the meeting made clear.

The International Education Summit on the Occasion of the G8 takes its mouthful of a name from the Group of 8, the forum for finance ministers of the world's largest economies. Now in its third year, the education summit has quickly become far more inclusive, and this year's conference drew representatives from countries including China, Indonesia, and Qatar.

"We're here to share challenges and opportunities, to talk about best practices, to learn from each other," said Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, the American international-exchange organization that played host to the meeting. "I think we're on the same page."

Indeed, the delegates, who come from government agencies and international-education groups, do share the same broad goals: They want to increase the movement of students across international borders, expand enrollment in postsecondary education generally, and produce graduates who are globally competent and culturally fluent.

Yet, differences in practice and policy can hamper collaboration. For instance, representatives from countries like France and Brazil with low- or no-tuition models said they had trouble forming academic exchanges or sending students to study in high-tuition countries like the United States.

Some participants objected to what they characterized as the increasing commercialization of international education, where the value of foreign students is measured by their economic impact. "This is just one vision of the world, and we are against this vision of world," said Béatrice Khaiat, deputy director of CampusFrance.

But Margaux Béland of the Canadian Bureau of International Education said it was critical to demonstrate the worth of international education to lawmakers and the general public to bring attention to the issue. "I can't say enough how the discourse in Canada has changed between us and our government now that we've been able to monetize it," said Ms. Béland, who is vice president for Canadian partnerships.

Even the vocabulary was a bit different. Countries that receive a lot of international students talked about "brain flow," but those that send many of their best and brightest abroad worried about "brain drain."

Soud Al-Tamimi from Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar said it's important to understand the goals of each country in globalizing its educational system. "Internationalization is not an objective," he said. "It's a way to achieve an objective."

Developing countries like his and Malaysia work with foreign universities to help build educational capacity they lack to meet pressing economic-development needs. Siti Hamisah Tapsir, deputy director general of the Malaysian Ministry of Education, said overseas partners can bring credibility and provide quality assurance. The effort, she said, is "nation building, talent building."

Meanwhile, countries such as the United States, Britain, and Australia are more likely to frame international exchange as a form of diplomacy and as a critical component of international trade.

Still, differences aside, the tone of the summit, which ended Thursday, was collaborative, not contentious.

Yes, there are "different drivers for internationalization—different but compatible," said Xavier Prats Monné, deputy director-general for education and culture for the European Commission.

If higher education is increasingly global, then countries ought to work together to ensure its quality, he argued. "If we believe education is so important in the economic strategies in our countries, then there should be stronger effort to collaboratively manage it," he said.

In an interview, Mr. Prats Monné was quick to add he wasn't advocating creating a "humongous bureaucracy" but rather a more global effort to set common regulatory frameworks or to reach agreement on learning goals. He points to the European Union's decade-long work to synchronize its higher-education systems, known as the Bologna Process, as a possible model.

The value of the annual meeting of higher-education leaders, Mr. Prats Monné argues, is that it can make higher education more visible in national and international policy debates. Mr. Goodman of IIE agrees. He hopes that within a year or two the meeting can "grab the attention" of worldwide economic ministers. Meanwhile, he said he leaves this year's gathering with new ideas and strategies.


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