It’s time to look beyond student mobility

Internationalisation in HE should focus on the mobility of programmes and providers, not just student mobility, writes Diane Simpson

August 25, 2019
Overseas study
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At the recent Shaping Sustainable Futures for Internationalization in Higher Education (SSFHIE2019) conference in Toronto, Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and one of the leading scholars of the internationalisation of higher education, set the stage for pushing the conversation beyond the mobility of students. She called for a greater focus on the realities within the field today, specifically the mobility of programmes and providers.

A critical piece in Knight’s work is her definition of internationalisation: a process of change related to integrating international and intercultural dimensions into the purpose, functions and delivery of higher education – as opposed to a series of activities that are international in nature. 

Central to this notion of internationalisation is the focus on relations between nations – as in people, cultures and systems. As she emphasises, it is important to understand that internationalisation is “not an end unto itself, but a means to an end”. 

Internationalisation will not solve the current challenges facing higher education nor is it responsible for these challenges. Rather, through the process of internationalisation, larger goals and objectives can be achieved.   

Knight’s keynote speech provided an introduction to international programme and provider mobility (IPPM), in contrast to international student and scholar mobility (ISSM) – which tends to dominate the current discourse on internationalisation of higher education. This is especially true in countries like Canada, where dialogue across the country and at all levels of government focuses solely on the mobility of students. This is fuelled by a focus on revenue generation for institutions and economic development for communities, as well as attractive immigration policies supporting international study permits and pathways to permanent residency. 

While dominant discourse in the field continues to focus on ISSM, activities in IPPM have accelerated since the turn of the century. Initiatives like international branch campuses, international joint universities, joint and double degree programmes, franchise arrangements and distance education are increasingly a focus of higher education development in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Yet this acceleration has not appeared on the radar of policymakers, planners and even institutional leaders.

Recent debates about the “end of internationalisation” and alarmist views on declining student mobility ignores this broader reality of IPPM for higher education. Yet the growth in IPPM demonstrates that alternative approaches are possible within today’s unsettled geopolitical climate and are increasing internationalisation within higher education.  

This growth is vividly illustrated by the activities of universities in the UK. According to a 2016 report by Universities UK and the British Council, 52 per cent of all international students who are enrolled in a UK qualification awarding programme take some or all of their programme through IPPM provision.

In terms of IPPM host countries, a similar increase in IPPM enrolments is happening. For instance, in Mauritius, approximately 43 per cent of all local students are enrolled in some type of IPPM.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Botswana 20 to 30 per cent of all local students are enrolled in IPPM courses.

This is a significant shift in higher education as provision begins to move to the student as opposed to students moving for their education. The impact of this shift is significant with the potential to have a positive impact on host countries. But there can be negative outcomes and implications as well.   

What is currently lacking is extensive research on the assessment of the quality of IPPM education, and the ability of these forms of education to provide future job and education opportunities to graduates. This is where Knight, rightfully, calls for more research on IPPM with more systematic data collection, policy analysis and scholarly and capacity building. 

However, research in and of itself is not enough. Research and analysis needs to critically assess the quality of the education being provided, the reciprocity afforded through IPPM initiatives along with issues of mutuality and sustainability – all extremely critical in ensuring that IPPM does not simply represent new forms of imperialism or educational colonialism. 

However, with so much emphasis on student mobility one wonders how to move the dialogue and emphasis away from the movement of students to one that is both inclusive and reflective of what is happening more broadly across the internationalisation of higher education.

Essential to shifting the dialogue away from student and staff mobility is inclusion of perspectives from Africa, Asia and Latin America – places where IPPM is gaining momentum as these regions seek to increase local capacity to meet increasing demands for high quality education.

At the SSFHIE2019, for instance, keynotes from Chika T Sehoole from the University of Pretoria and Ka Ho Mok of Lingnan University in Hong Kong provided alternative perspectives to a field predominantly focused on the movement of students.

When considering sustainable futures in the internationalisation of higher education, the mobility of programmes and providers presents new and innovative approaches to meet local demands. It presents an approach with the potential to be reciprocal, providing quality education inclusive of local voices.

Diane Simpson is pursuing a PhD in higher education and comparative, international and development education from the University of Toronto.

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