Internationalisation is not an end itself

It’s not good enough just to jump on the internationalisation bandwagon – we have to measure outcomes, says Uwe Brandenburg

January 15, 2016

Internationalisation has been perhaps the most ubiquitous buzzword of the last two decades in higher education. It has brought with it isomorphism (when I do what you do, but I don’t know why), an emperor’s new clothes phenomenon (when everybody wants the same thing but only pretends to understand the value) and straightforward lip service (almost every university now claims to be a “global player”).

Isomorphism tends to turn innovation into tradition. But while an innovator will thrive on critique, using it as a means for improvement, traditionalists do not want to be challenged.

In the case of internationalisation, this is exacerbated by the fact that for some strange reason, the term “internationalisation” has only positive connotations - it is taken for granted that internationalisation is good and therefore an end in itself.

But does this stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think it does. Internationalisation may enhance the core areas of university activity - teaching, research and social engagement – if it is properly applied. But it is not an end in itself, and it does have to be properly applied.

Consider an example from another industry. How do most people choose the best hotel to stay in? Do they simply rely on what an advertisement says? No. Most people consider it sensible to look at what others have said, to find reviews, to compare and to check. 

Why are we not doing that in internationalisation? As with a hotel, it is not only a question of whether the price is right or the location or the services, but a whole combination of factors. And in the end, only the stay itself - the outcome - defines our satisfaction with the hotel we chose. The same applies, in my view, to internationalisation in higher education.

In order to choose the right path, we need to measure outcomes, and not only inputs (such as the number of exchange agreements), or outputs (such as the percentage of outgoing students). We have to ask: what was achieved by, say, increased student mobility? How was teaching, research or social engagement improved because of our internationalisation strategy?

There are two related outcomes from internationalisation that are especially relevant to the individual student, as was demonstrated by the Erasmus Impact Study which I led for the European Commission. They are employability and career. The study showed that mobility reduces the risk of long-term unemployment, raises the chances of working in international environments, and increases a graduate’s chances of securing a managerial position.

Employers value certain traits particularly highly, and our work showed that these traits are especially influenced by mobility. We found that six months of mobility as a student could equate to as much as four years of life experience in developing these “employable” traits.

So for the majority, mobility does help.

Blind advocates of internationalisation will say: I told you so; we know all that simply from asking students whether they learned anything when they come back from their travels.

But I find this approach slightly disturbing.

Imagine you are a professor of physics and want to know how much your students learn in a semester. Do you ask them whether they learned anything? Or would that be considered odd, not to mention inadequate? Every student with half a brain will claim to have learned lots. Checking whether that’s true is why exams exist. So why are we happy to take their word for it when it comes to internationalisation?

More importantly, averages can be misleading: not everybody benefits from mobility. And that’s why measuring outcomes is so important, because universities are responsible for every single student, and if we want to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our approach to internationalisation, we need to know which activities benefit who.

We will do that by focusing services on those who need them and by tailoring what we do to the different needs of different groups. But this will only be possible if we know what effect internationalisation has on these groups. That’s why measuring impact and outcome of internationalisation strategies should be the focus of the next five to 10 years, in my view.

Many claim to do this, but few really do. The majority still seem content with an assumption that internationalisation is good in itself. This assumption is simply not good enough.


Uwe Brandenburg is managing partner of higher education consulting firm CHE Consult and former international director at Humboldt University of Berlin.

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