Just keep on moving . . .

February 16, 1996

The internationalisation of higher education needs attention, says Roger King

The flow of students across national boundaries in pursuit of their studies has long been regarded as beneficial - for the students and their career prospects, for the universities, and for the economic and democratic well-being of nations. Although the wandering scholar has given way to formalised exchange programmes, universities continue to believe that internationalisation of the student experience resonates well with the pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, for countries such as the United Kingdom which are relatively popular destinations to study, the economic benefits of full fee-paying students from abroad have become increasingly recognised by government. Higher education these days is seen as a vital part of Britain's export performance.

Unsurprisingly, transnational bodies such as the European Union have placed considerable emphasis on encouraging the mobility of students across borders, not least to build up some sense of Europeanness. Although the goal of the Erasmus programme to have 10 per cent of full-time undergraduates throughout Europe on exchange schemes was never realised, its replacement, Socrates, retains the original aspirations for greater student movements.

This view of internationalisation, however, does not always run deep and is increasingly assailed by reservations. There is a growing requirement for advocates to demonstrate the benefits for students, institutions and countries. There is a clear need for research to tackle the range of costs and benefits associated with international higher education.

Additional public funding for student exchange programmes is harder to justify with the fiscal challenges in financing mass higher education. It is perhaps significant that Socrates appears to place more emphasis than Erasmus did on "virtual internationalisation" through new technologies, or through internationalisation of the domestic curriculum, than on physical movement. This is seen as a more fundable instrument. A key question is, are these approaches cost-effective, or do they neglect the vital experiential factor? A fruitful line of enquiry might be to explore whether the often considerable private international experiences of students (consumers, tourists) could be formally recognised or even accredited by universities. Employers value "extra curricula" initiatives and responsibilities in graduates, especially if these can be codified and represented.

Few universities are aware of the financial costs and benefits of international students. This may lead to a lack of commitment to international strategies. Institutions need to be able to justify to themselves and to explain to others, including staff, their internationalisation plans, and to base their evaluations on robust methodologies.

Comparative investigation of one of the main arguments for student internationalism, enhanced employment, would be welcome, not least to examine whether, and through which forms, study abroad generates better career prospects for students. Employers' views would be crucial, not least as some evidence from Canada and the United States shows that employers tend to disregard such experiences on the basis that they are in the best position to provide more corporately valuable transnational training. None the less, some pedagogies and learning processes may be particularly effective in generating internationally relevant capabilities of value to companies.

There needs to be more open acknowledgement that study abroad can cause bad experiences for students, and we need to understand better the critical variables, particularly the different national patterns of institutional student services. The Higher Education Quality Council could examine the regulatory frameworks and means of quality assurance and standards likely to be most appropriate and effective, and recognised, for international higher education.

The increasing availability of multimedia delivered learning raises issues for quality assurance processes, and serious threats for universities. Multimedia penetration across borders, for example, has the potential to jeopardise the domestic monopoly of national systems of awards and qualifications, and provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to seize distributive and delivery capability from universities. These developments are only dimly perceived.

The inflow of students from abroad is increasingly not well regarded by the general public. They may be associated with migrant issues or as somehow taking university places designated for domestic school leavers. At the same time, it is claimed that internationalisation improves citizens' democratic values and behaviour. Are we able to confirm these claims and when do they apply?

Will new forms of global stratification based on a more commodified form of the international student experience exclude some countries from these processes, and lead to a diminished university concern with underdevelopment? The internationalisation of the student experience is increasingly diverse. Yet universities seem remarkably uninterested in understanding their bases and consequences.

Roger King is vice chancellor of the University of Humberside.

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