Internationalization of Higher Education: the Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected

Those of us involved in the internationalization of higher education rely on a series of assumptions that are often not supported by data or evidence. For instance, we believe that internationalization is not only positive but also very relevant as a key component of the changing landscape of higher education. When asked about why internationalization is important we are prepared to recite a list of its many benefits for the students, the faculty, the institution, and to society in general. Well, if we don’t defend our cause (and our jobs) well, who will do it? We assume that internationalization is good, but we often lack any data to support our assumptions.  Also, we don’t think too much about the fact that there are different rationales as to why, how, and for which purposes an institution or, for that matter, a whole region, wants to engage in an internationalization effort.  At least, that’s what new data from the International Association of Universities (IAU) shows.

Based on the principle that “it depends, and context matters more than ever,” it is especially interesting to take a look at the third Global Survey Report on Internationalization of Higher Education, which was recently released by IAU.  This comprehensive survey is the largest of its kind worldwide, and includes responses from 745 institutions in 115 countries. For purposes of analysis, the results were clustered in the following regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East, and North America (the U.S. and Canada). Even though the survey is on its third edition, it still has limitations which fortunately are acknowledged and explained in the document. Nevertheless, it provides useful hints about trends in international education not only on a worldwide basis but also by region. While running the risk of over-generalizing, let me mention some of these trends.

Although I am familiar with the design of the survey since CONAHEC provided IAU with technical support in its administration, I must confess that I was puzzled with some of the results. Would readers believe that international education is no longer seen merely as a potential source of additional financial resources? Or that higher-education institutions in North America included in the survey didn’t see internationalization as a way to engage in international cooperation and solidarity? Or that none of the regions of the world consider Latin America as a priority area in their internationalization policy? (Ouch! That hurts…). Or that, contrary to popular rhetoric, faculty members are not seen as the most important internal drivers for increased internationalization?

Certainly, some of the responses are consistent across regions and, in a way, expected. It is not surprising, for instance, that financial support is identified in all regions and institutions as a key obstacle for internationalization. (At least we have a consensus in recognizing that, as said in my hometown of Ojuelos, “con dinero baila el perro … y sin dinero bailamos como perros” (with money, the dog dances, and without money, we are the ones dancing like dogs). Also, the survey confirms that internationalization is seen as important in most participating higher-education institutions. (We are making progress!)

Worldwide, the majority of institutions give a high importance to internationalization, with Europe topping the list in this regard, followed by North America. The Middle East  and Latin America and the Caribbean are at the bottom.

Where significant regional differences exist, it is not in the lamenting for the lack of proper funds, or in the importance of internationalization, but on the main rationales for these widely agreed upon beliefs. Worldwide, the top five reasons for internationalizing an institution are, in order of importance, to improve student preparedness; internationalize the curriculum; enhance the international profile of the institution; strengthen research and knowledge production; and diversify its faculty and staff. However, when the information is analyzed by regions, interesting variations are found. For instance, both North America and Latin America give much more importance to international preparedness of students than Europe. Interestingly, institutions in Africa consider as the more important internationalization rationale, to strengthen research and knowledge production. The Middle East gives the highest importance equally to improving student preparedness and also strengthening research.

Results suggest also that institutions in North America are not bothered with the notion of increasing their international profile.  For them, this is placed at a distant fourth level of importance in comparison with, for instance, Europe where it is the second most important rationale. I wonder if this can be explained by some degree of insularity, or a somewhat egocentric perspective of the region’s status in the world of higher education. Surprisingly, all regions gave an extremely low importance to internationalizing the campus with the idea of diversifying sources of income or in response to public policies.

When asked about the most important benefits of internationalization, the top three reasons at the global level listed in order of relevance were: increasing international awareness of students; strengthening research and knowledge production; and fostering international cooperation and solidarity. The only significant difference in this otherwise very consistent pattern was offered in the IAU Survey by institutions in North America for which “international cooperation and solidarity” was not considered as beneficial as it was in the rest of the regions. This factor placed a worrying 5th in North America.

Regarding the question on who is the most important internal driver for increased internationalization, in general, institutions in all regions of the world coincided in pinning responsibility on the president of the institution, followed by the international office, and finally, positioning faculty members in third place. Interestingly, in our day to day life, we listen to presidents and university administrators praising faculty members as the main champions of international education. Is this just rhetoric? I just don’t get it.

Another puzzling finding of the survey has to do with to which geographic region higher-education institutions are turning their eyes for their internationalization work. The aggregate results show that no major shifts have happened in the last five years. And the winner is … Europe! (Not the Asia-Pacific region which placed second.) The bronze medal goes to North America. Nevertheless, the analysis by region should be a matter of concern for policymakers in some parts of the world. For instance, in the Asia-Pacific region the first geographic priority for the internationalization policy in the majority of their institutions is — guess who? — Asia-Pacific, followed by Europe. For European institutions the first priority is placed on Europe itself and the second one on Asia-Pacific. For North America the first priority is Asia-Pacific, followed by Europe. Latin America and the Middle East consider Europe as the key regional priority. Sadly, the only region considering Africa as the principal priority is precisely Africa, but aside from that, none of the regions even consider Africa as a second or third priority. Even worse, Latin America is not even considered a priority by those Latin American institutions which participated in the study, and none of the other regions of the world considers Latin America among their top three choices.  If a region of the world is completely off the radar of international educators from all over the world, it provides at least a good “wake-up” call.

Well, I could go on and on dissecting the results of this survey, but instead I encourage readers to take a first-hand look at the report. As indicated in its closing chapter, there is no question that international higher education is changing even much more than we can imagine and anticipate. The traditional lenses through which we view the field of international education may require a significant change of prescription. It’s time to go to the optometrist.

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