International is as international does

To be a truly global university, metrics must go beyond student enrolment figures and international student welcome weeks, reflects Christopher Hill 

August 21, 2018
A map with international students around it
Source: iStock

The term “international” has largely been diluted to the point where every institution is now international. If this is indeed true does that mean that the value and uniqueness of being international has been lost? Or is it merely a reflection of the evolution of higher education systems? After all, if the flow of information available to students transcends borders and location, why should the definition of their experience be any different?

Internationalisation is a much-used but perhaps little-understood term. It can be defined as the process of increasing involvement of enterprises in international markets; or the designing of a product in such a way that it will meet the needs of users in many countries or can be easily adapted to do so. Higher education’s outreach, either by physical presence, delivery or partnership, has created a global reality whereby existence dictates international-ness.  A perverse universum ergo sum, if you will.  

How we define ourselves

We can count the number of international students in our classrooms and countries represented on our campuses; we can list the number of partners; we can stack up the signed MOUs but how do we measure internationalisation when the term is used to mean all things to all people? 

When I worked for the University of Nottingham, it held the curious accolade of being dubbed “the nearest thing the UK has to a truly global university”.  I often found myself asking, “what did we miss out on? What would have pushed us over the top to be an actual global university?” Nottingham’s campuses in Malaysia and China were, 10 years ago, something of an anomaly. There was little in the way of formal measurement tools or the ability to fully factor this type of international activity into the perception and the reality of an institution.

As the sector has evolved, the branch campus model is routinely held up as a core indicator of international status and branding. But, I would argue that internationalisation occurs when branch campus activity is folded into the core university activity and strategic development; when teaching, learning and research is collaborative and informs shared practice; when staff and student mobility is normal rather than an exception and when leadership is distributed across geography and time.

How do we recognise it when we see it?

Should we recognise that there may very well be a distinction between international and internationalisation? Universities run international student welcome weeks and house international students in international student housing. This creates both the perception and the reality of being international, but to what extent do these students integrate with the local student population? To what extent are their experiences integrated into classroom learning and outcomes? “International” may well be satisfied by the simple act of counting students but internationalisation is about impact and change.

How do we measure internationalisation? If I have students from 10 countries and you have students from 20 countries, does that make you twice as international as me? Should there be a minimum number of international faculty members? Or a minimum number of national degree qualifications among the academics? 

There are examples of support and recognition of international activity. Times Higher Education ranks institutions’ international activity in five key areas, including teaching, research and industry income. Meanwhile, the European Association for International Education coordinates an Internationalisation at Home Expert Community that works towards ensuring all students reap the benefits of international higher education, not just those who are mobile. Scrutiny and discussion such as this are good things. “International” is a general term but our response should be specific. If international and internationalisation are reflections of outward mobility and geographic expansion, then success and reality must be measured accordingly.

British Council research indicates that global outbound student mobility will slow over the coming decade from 5.7 per cent annual growth between 2000-2015 to 1.7 per cent annual average growth by 2027. Increasing challenges over visas, concerns over safety, rising xenophobia and a marked increase in local provision has created an environment of change.  

As competition for students increases and the uncertain future of employability further calls the value of a degree into question, institutions must do more to ensure that the student experience is relevant and valuable. Mobility can no longer be the core consideration. Internationalisation must be about student experience and collaborative output. It must be open. It must be measured and it must be held accountable.

Christopher Hill is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the British University in Dubai.

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