Aligning International Work With Institutional Priorities

A key challenge faced by individuals, university departments, and associations involved in international education is to convince institutional leaders of the critical role that their work can play in better fulfilling the overall mission of higher-education institutions. At the same time, campus administrators usually express their frustration about the lack of understanding both on and off campus regarding the extremely difficult challenges associated with the management of complex institutions, which can be characterized as facing unlimited priorities and ideas–one of which is the internationalization agenda–while restricted by resource limitations. All too often, the international agenda is perceived by administrators as one of those ideas which can be labeled as a priority to be addressed in the future when better times arise and more resources become available.

Even within the camp of specialized international education associations, without exception, a common shared goal (or dream?) is to find the key formula that will help each become a more meaningful player. In a way, these associations reflect the frustrations expressed by their members when they, in turn, are unable to gain the attention, interest and, of course, the allocation of resources from institutional decision makers.  At the other end of the spectrum, the working agenda of the so called “presidential associations” or national rectors’ conferences is mostly dominated by tense negotiations with their respective governments either in search of more resources or less regulation, and by advocating on different fronts for more societal recognition of the work done by higher education and for its key role in economic and social development. Again, for them, the international agenda can be considered relatively marginal in light of their daily pressures.

Is there any common ground between international education and institutional priorities? Are there ways to bring together both perspectives?  Is there room for a dialogue between international education associations and higher education presidential associations? That was the topic of the 4th Global Meeting of Associations of Universities (GMAC-IV) organized by the International Association of Universities (IAU) and held last week in New Delhi under the auspices of the Association of Indian Universities (AIU). The organizers of this event were able to bring together more than 60 representatives from both international education associations such as the European Association of International Education (EAIE) and the Association for International Education Administrators (AIEA), and also from national presidential associations such as the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Association of African Universities (AAU). I attended as the representative of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC).

In New Delhi it was clear that the rhetoric used by the two types of organizations –international ones and national ones–tends to be different. The challenge presented by the organizers was to find common ground. Not an easy task if we consider, to begin with, that internationalization of higher education has different–and often times conflicting–meanings for different stakeholders. At least there is common ground in recognizing the importance of the internationalization of higher education. As expressed by Molly Corbett-Broad, president of the American Council on Education, “the pace of change in the international arena in higher education has grown exponentially, it is increasingly complex, and can’t be ignored any more by institutions and governments.”

And what about the ideal of preparing students with a true sense of global citizenship, able to work within international teams and settings with a refined sense of tolerance and multicultural awareness, capable of speaking multiple languages, and endowed with a sense of both global and local responsibility? As expressed by Eva Egron-Polak, secretary general of IAU, “internationalization must contribute to narrowing gaps, increasing respect and appreciation among people, to expanding opportunities, and to pushing the frontiers of knowledge but in ways that are not detrimental locally or globally, now or in the future.”

Nevertheless, the rationale for and meaning of internationalization of higher education tends to vary in the case of governments, employers, institutional leaders, faculty members, students, and international-education professionals.  It also varies in use and meaning in different parts of the world.

Governments, for instance, frequently like to link internationalization of higher education with the enhancement of the profile or prestige of a region or a country. How many national governments have expressed their frustration when just a few or none of the institutions in their country are included in one of the international rankings of universities? Many of these governments have often decided by decree (and not always realistically) that by a certain targeted year they will have X number of world-class universities. Some governments have even convinced institutions from abroad–some prestigious and others not so much–to open branch campuses in their country with the assumption that by doing so they will become major players in the knowledge economy at a faster pace. In fact, as indicated at the IAU conference by Kevin Kinser and Jason Lane, of the group Global Higher Education, in recent years the number of international branch campuses has grown substantially, going from 15 identified in 1995 to 165 in 2011. Eleven times as many in a span of only 16 years!

For employers, internationalization of higher education may simply mean availability of graduates from higher-education institutions with adequate international skills, even if they must be recruited abroad. For faculty members, internationalization may mean having the capacity to collaborate with peers from other countries when conducting research. For students, it may mean having the opportunity to study abroad or to study a second language.

Internationalization for institutional leaders may also mean competitiveness and prestige, or position in the rankings as well. It is not a myth that even in some cases in which rectors are elected by the internal university community, complete political platforms of election campaigns are built based on the concept of internationalization, though often this just turns out to be rhetoric and results in a few modest and uncoordinated activities.

For some institutional leaders, internationalization simply represents an opportunity to obtain additional revenue streams for the institution. Yes, as plain as that, internationalization in those cases is just about money. Some institutional governing boards contribute to this mess. There are instances of university presidents receiving salary increases in return for a higher international ranking.

For other institutional leaders, internationalization is linked to the signing of international memoranda of understanding, entertaining international delegates on campus or traveling abroad. In those cases, not too much substance is behind the signing of the agreement or the picture published in the institutional newspaper. I refer to this tendency as the menace of the “flying pen.”

From a regional perspective, some attendees of the GMAC-IV conference argued correctly that the traditional definition of internationalization of higher education can be interpreted differently from one country to another. For instance, the aims of institutions in attracting the best talent from abroad may be viewed negatively in countries affected by brain drain.

Fortunately, there are some very encouraging cases of higher-education institutions at which internationalization truly becomes the main pillar of their overall institutional strategic plans, taking into consideration, as would be expected, the fulfillment of institutional goals, but also the role of the institution as a socially responsible citizen not only locally but also globally. In these particular cases, much is to be learned and much more to be done in further disseminating their stories.

Institutions able to better align internationalization aims as a “transversal strategy” rather than as a separate one discrete from the traditional functions of teaching, research, and public service, are the ones that will be better positioned to respond to the complexities of a world that is changing. Such a strategy should also be “transcendental” in order to move the institutional culture from a selfish inward-looking and institution-centric one to a more open view of its work and responsibilities in the global context.

At the end, discussions like those that were had in New Delhi confirm that it will likely soon be time to re-examine what we have understood as internationalization in higher education. It looks as though the traditional framework used to define the concept no longer fits the new reality. As expressed by Juan Ramon de la Fuente, former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and current president of IAU “what is the purpose (of internationalization) and how does this process fit into the overall reforms of higher education, how it impacts positively on the changes underway and when, or if, it can also bring negative consequences. If we are serious about the centrality of this process in higher education and research, it needs to permeate all of our work.  The question is, does it do so?”

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