The US risks falling behind on internationalisation

Stateside efforts to widen higher education’s global reach are fragmented and conflicting, says Philip Wainwright

March 7, 2016
Statue of Liberty, New York

The drive towards internationalisation at US universities has a deeply personal history for me. I first came to the US in the 1960s as the dependent child of one the few international faculty members in Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. I returned to Emory in 1996 as a founding staff member of the Center for International Programs Abroad (CIPA). Globalisation is not just an academic trend for me. It’s been my life.

In the 1990s, when we founded CIPA, few students at Emory studied abroad, and most of the international students at Emory were in graduate and professional programmes. Leadership recognised that we weren’t going far enough and began increasing resources and support. By 1996, Emory’s undergraduate schools were committed to internationalising their student populations through study abroad. Now, in 2016, more than a third of our undergraduates study abroad.

Emory’s efforts take place in a larger national context of rapid internationalisation for US universities. The number of international students in the US has increased by 72 per cent during the past decade, with the rate of increase itself increasing steadily and reaching almost 5 per cent from 2014-15.

With college-aged populations now in decline in many countries with highly developed systems of higher education, including the US, and with a rapidly expanding demand for excellent education in countries with growing middle classes, the opportunity – even the necessity – for established universities to think globally is clear.

There has been a similar increase in international research collaborations. At Emory, the number of internationally co-authored publications is four times greater now than it was in 2002. These internationally co-authored publications achieve substantially higher citation rates than those that are solely domestically authored. Universities and government agencies around the world are recognising the importance of international collaboration as a way to enhance their core missions of education and research.

In spite of the impressive growth of international populations and international research collaborations, US institutions are not moving as assertively or in as coordinated a fashion as institutions in countries in which national educational systems have moved quickly and deliberately to adapt to the opportunities that globalisation creates. For instance, in the early 1990s, the number of domestic Australians of college age peaked and then went into decline. The Australian Department of Education intentionally and successfully pursued a policy of internationalisation, attracting study-abroad students from the US and degree-seeking students from neighbouring countries in Asia. 

This effort was highly organised and effective. Today, approximately 30 per cent of students enrolled in Australian institutions are foreign. Australia had an excellent system of higher education and research infrastructure that would have been significantly weakened if there had not been a willingness to broaden perspective and open up to new populations. Students around the world, particularly in countries with growing middle classes, were hungry for access to the opportunities that Australian universities could provide. 

In the US, we do not have a ministry of education spearheading internationalisation initiatives or interagency coordination to support efforts to appeal to foreign markets. The efforts of individual agencies are laudable, but policies can sometimes undermine each other. Some programmes promote international exchange, while others create restrictions that make it harder to conduct those exchanges. 

Sentiment against immigration has thrown up barriers to internationalisation. Increasingly restrictive and burdensome immigration and visa regulations at the federal level and unwelcoming policies at the state level inhibit the kind of immigration that would strengthen the research capacity of universities and enhance the education of their domestic students, as well as economic innovation and growth more generally.

In the US, it is up to individual institutions or state systems to set their own priorities and to decide how to position themselves globally, even though the pressures of declining enrolments and increased competition for top students are similar to those felt in other countries. As individual institutions or state university systems face the challenges and opportunities of globalisation, few have fully embraced it – even though globalisation is happening, whether they want it or not. 

US institutions have great strengths internationally as recognised world-class centres for education and research, but, at the institutional level, ignoring or at least not thinking systematically about the opportunities that globalisation has created is as short-sighted as the conflicting government policies which inhibit globalisation in the first place. 

The most immediate challenge at the institutional level is the need to move beyond viewing “international” as something outside the realm of “normal”.  To understand the reasons for thinking about the international as a fundamental part of our community, we can look back to the arguments emphasising the value that diversity in general brings to an intellectual community. Diversity fosters new perspectives and enriches our educational and research missions. We can also look to how global trends are shaping education and research now and in the future.

We stand at a crossroads. With predicted demographic shifts locating the greatest demand for higher education outside the US in countries with a growing middle class, we must embrace globalisation in order to remain relevant as teachers. With the greatest problems of our day transcending national borders – climate change, safe water, epidemics such as Ebola – thriving international research collaborations will only become more vital.

By strengthening our global-mindedness at home, we can expand our impact abroad. The path to fulfilling our educational and research missions in the coming decades is through growing global connections and partnerships.  Twenty years ago, internationalisation seemed like a desirable option. Now it is clearly an essential part of the path forward. 

Philip Wainwright is vice-provost for global strategy and initiatives, and director of the Halle Institute for Global Learning at Emory University.

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