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Internationalisation is a higher education buzzword that sometimes lacks a clear definition. Is it about how many overseas students a university recruits? Does it mean establishing a branch campus on the other side of the globe? Or is it the sum of a university’s cross-border research links?
Possibly all of the above apply, but what is certainly true is that despite the recent focus on the need for higher education to reconnect locally, internationalisation is still generally seen as something that universities and countries should be embracing.
And according to data from the past four years of Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, some nations have evidently been embracing it more quickly than others.
The data, from the “international outlook” pillar of the rankings – which measures universities’ share of overseas students, staff and cross-border research – show that the group of countries with the most internationalised systems has remained relatively constant.
But what is striking is that some have jumped ahead of others in this leading pack. Hong Kong, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia have all made strides relative to their competitors while others, most notably the UK, have not.
A look at the individual metrics reveals further intriguing patterns. As on the overall pillar, Australia’s ranked universities are now ahead of the UK on international students – and other nations seem to be catching up fast.
While it is important to stress that the average scores reflect only ranked universities – in other words, research-focused institutions in each country – they do tie in with observable policy shifts.
In terms of students, Canadian universities have been clear about their ambitions to recruit from overseas, backed up by a government policy that offers graduates a firm prospect of settling and working in the country afterwards. Australia, meanwhile, reversed policies deemed unfriendly to overseas student recruitment, and Dutch research institutions have led continental Europe in expanding numbers, in large part thanks to English becoming a dominant language of instruction.
The data mostly predate the UK’s Brexit vote, but the country’s stalling on the metric is likely to be linked to restrictions on post-study work opportunities and a perception that it was becoming less open to students.
But are these trends set to continue?
Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that while Canada’s international student boom showed no sign of slowing, especially with the UK and the US less attractive because of Brexit and the Trump administration’s policies, he thought that the Netherlands had possibly reached “the limit” of its expansion.
“In the Netherlands now, the debate about teaching in English is very politicised, we see that there are capacity problems with universities [lacking] the accommodation for international students…so both in [terms of] services and the political and cultural dimension I don’t think that growth will be increasing,” he said.
Asked which European countries could step into this breach, Professor de Wit pointed to Germany and France as possibly being more “able to absorb demand for international students” because in Scandinavian nations such as Denmark and Sweden, there was also a feeling of “reaching [their] limit of becoming more internationalised”.
Vincent Carpentier, reader in the history of education at the UCL Institute of Education, said that although France had lagged behind countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, its system “has always been reasonably international”.
But recent leaps in French internationalisation – in terms of student recruitment, at least – were down to involvement in European Union programmes, a “cultural shift” towards a more global outlook and other “key changes such as the introduction of courses in English”.
Dr Carpentier added that the challenges for France could be ensuring that “internationalisation doesn’t increase the inequalities between institutions” and developing teaching “for the benefits of both French and international students”.
Another challenge faced by any European country looking to attract more international students from outside the continent is the growing attractiveness of Asian nations as destinations.
“They have the advantage of being cheaper and being open to [international students] – it is part of their regional policy to do that. So I think that trend will increase,” Professor de Wit said.
In terms of the countries best placed to tap into this tilt towards Asia, many eyes are on Malaysia.
“It is seen as having the opportunity, a welcoming attitude towards [those coming from] Islamic countries, [teaching] in English and you will get a reasonably cheap qualification,” Professor de Wit added, also pointing out that it could have more capacity than current popular hubs such as Singapore.
What of the other fast developing nations in Asia, not least China?
Xiao Han, research assistant professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, said that East Asian nations aiming to emulate the success of Hong Kong and Singapore faced “several difficulties” including the limited number of courses in English and poor post-study work opportunities.
But on this latter point, China already seems to be addressing the situation. Dr Han said that it had “recently loosened its control over foreign students’ working visa applications when [it realised that] the aim of a great proportion of international students studying in China was working there”.
Of course, international student recruitment is just one small aspect of internationalisation.
In the international pillar of the rankings, which also looks at recruitment of academic staff from overseas, Canada now has a higher average score than the UK, with the Netherlands almost on a par with both nations.
And on international research collaboration, where the Netherlands and Sweden were already strong, Hong Kong stands out as making progress, as well as Australia, which has overtaken the UK.
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, said that the “strong shift” in the balance of worldwide research towards the Asia-Pacific region meant that it was well placed to benefit.
“Whereas traditionally most research collaboration took place between Australian academics and their European or North American counterparts, we have seen major growth in important research joint efforts between Indian-Australian researchers and their colleagues back in the subcontinent and Chinese-Australian researchers and their colleagues back in China,” he said.
“As Australia’s migrant population from the Indo-Pacific region grows, our academics are leveraging this significant diaspora pull factor.”
Meanwhile, Professor de Wit said that another important aspect of internationalisation that should not be overlooked – and which is not captured in the rankings – is the degree to which students have experience of other cultures.
“The study-abroad factor…is more important in the US and continental Europe than, for instance, in the UK or Australia or Canada, where there are concerns about the very few students with international experience,” he said.
“Those concerns have to be addressed as well and [are] an important factor in how successful you are at being an internationalised system or institution.”
Good data on this are sometimes hard to come by, especially since international experience could be achieved through a short placement abroad rather than completing a whole degree course in another country.
But the latest figures in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance report show, at least for enrolments abroad, which countries are increasing both their outbound and inbound student traffic.
China is noticeable on the graph as being one of the nations with strong growth in students moving in and out of the country.
And perhaps, in the long run, it could have the most potential to become the next highly internationalised system, given that it is already the number one source for students studying abroad and is now looking to become an international destination of choice, too.
“China is now trying to promote the internationalisation of higher education in many aspects,” she said. “Against the context of [the] ‘One Belt, One Road’ [trade programme]…internationalising education is now tightly linked to China’s global strategy,” she added.