Warning: developing regions may fall off the world map

Universities need to wake up to downsides of internationalisation, survey claims. John Morgan reports

October 28, 2010

Universities need to face up to the potential negatives of internationalisation, including the risks of some developing regions being left behind and of student mobility becoming "elitist".

This is one of the messages of the International Association of Universities' (IAU) third Global Survey Report on Internationalisation of Higher Education.

Another key finding of the survey, based on responses from 745 institutions worldwide, is that overseas undergraduate students represent less than 1 per cent of the student body internationally.

Universities in Asia and the Pacific report the biggest increase in level of importance assigned to internationalisation, with 39 per cent of respondents indicating that, for their leaders, the process had "substantially increased" in importance in the three years since the previous survey.

In comparing the level of importance assigned to internationalisation, the report notes that institutions in the Middle East "followed by those in Latin America and the Caribbean appear to lag behind others in terms of the level of importance attributed to this policy area. Only 48 per cent and 51 per cent of institutions in these regions, respectively, indicate that their leadership assigns a high level of importance to internationalisation, while in Europe the comparable figure is 71 per cent."

Eva Egron-Polak, the IAU secretary general, said the survey showed that internationalisation was "becoming a central policy focus" although the emphasis differed by region.

Ms Egron-Polak, who wrote the report with Ross Hudson, said there was a risk that universities in the developed world were "not always concerned about how our programmes, our goals, may impact on our partners. Knowing that Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are not among the priority areas for anybody but themselves means we need to do more to stimulate interest in these areas in our internationalisation strategies."

On the survey finding that enhancing "reputation" was one of the main goals of internationalisation for universities in Europe, Ms Egron-Polak said: "There may be far less collaboration with the institutions in some of the less-developed regions...And yet I think the issues that we will need to address globally actually require our students to know about development and developing regions."

She added that cuts in public funding for higher education around the world could accentuate the problem. "If funding is limited and choices have to be made, the push in terms of collaboration will be to regions where there is interest already. Latin America and Africa are dropping off that list."

International development and capacity-building projects were not ranked among the top five priority activities worldwide, coming in seventh out of 17 options.

The IAU is housed within the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. While it receives no other support from the organisation, Ms Egron-Polak said that the "values and perspectives Unesco is pursuing are reflected in our work".

She said one of the IAU's aims was to look at internationalisation in terms of "concerns and worries that may be part and parcel of a process that we find extremely positive".

The low flow of students

The survey report defines internationalisation as "the process of integrating an international, intercultural and/or global dimension into the purpose, functions (teaching, research and service) and delivery of higher education".

It says of the 1 per cent international student figure: "These findings confirm that, despite the importance assigned to student mobility at the policy level, the level of mobility remains very low, as does the number of scholarships and other financial incentives that are made available to students."

The report notes the importance of student funding in non-European countries, adding: "Concern over the elitist nature of internationalisation has been noted in some quarters and thus if international opportunities are to become accessible to a variety of students, financial and other support will have to increase."

"Improving student preparedness for a globalised world" was ranked by institutions worldwide as the most important rationale for internationalisation. But in Africa and the Middle East, the top rationale was to "strengthen research and knowledge capacity production".

Worldwide, the top risk of internationalisation was seen as "commodification and commercialisation of education", followed by "brain drain". But "very few" institutions saw "growing gaps among higher education institutions or growing gaps among countries and regions" as being important risks.

And "diversify sources of revenue" came eighth out of the 10 options for the driving motivation behind internationalisation.

Ms Egron-Polak said some universities may have been "politically correct" in their answers. "Obviously (revenue raising) is not something institutions want to state. It is very difficult to find questions that may lead on to it."

The survey found that 32 per cent of institutions offer courses or programmes abroad. That rose to 70 per cent among North American institutions, compared with 15 per cent of institutions in the Middle East.


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