I vividly remember the summer of 1992, when I first arrived on the University of Illinois campus at Urbana-Champaign to pursue my master’s in labour and industrial relations. I was in complete awe that I would have the opportunity to study at a university with such an impressive international reputation – it was then ranked 28th in the world and 20th in the US. I came to the University of Illinois as an international graduate student, and the support that I received from faculty made a significant impact on my decision to not only complete my MA but also to continue with a PhD. Having returned to campus almost 20 years later as vice-provost for international affairs and global strategies, I now have the privilege of building on the university’s strong tradition of academic excellence and helping to realise the vision of making Illinois a pre-eminent university with global impact.
The University of Illinois has a longer tradition of welcoming international students than any other public university in the US. With more than 11,000 international students and scholars on our campus, we have made a name for ourselves as a global destination for top students from all over the world seeking the very best education. Our history of global engagement dates back to the early 20th century. In 1905, the university’s president, Edmund James, determined that it was important to foster a good relationship between China and the US through education. The Illinois experience is thus deeply rooted in the idea of providing a world-class education in the global classroom. We nurture international education on and off campus through educational partnerships with institutions around the world, through research that connects us with our peers, and through robust study-abroad and exchange programmes.
The dynamic and increasingly complex higher education landscape in the 21st century provides opportunities to explore, to expand our intellectual boundaries, and to engage across disciplines to seek innovative solutions to some of our world’s most challenging problems. Grounded in the land grant mission of teaching, research and engagement, our international efforts provide an invigorating intellectual environment in which our faculty and students can thrive as global leaders.
Being a pre-eminent global university is about more than just having a large number of international students on our campus. Universities can make a significant impact through the curriculum, preparing culturally conscious and globally competent graduates. How do universities take an integrated approach to the curriculum to ensure that their courses present an opportunity to internationalise? Universities have the opportunity and the obligation to ensure that the international experience is integrated across the entire academic landscape – rather than relegating the international experience to a few courses with exotic titles.
The landscape for student mobility is shifting to include new players. While US universities have dominated for many years as lead recipients of international students, universities in other regions – Asia Pacific, for example – are investing significantly in their higher education infrastructures and emerging as critical players in this arena, particularly for undergraduates. Changes in the funding of US higher education institutions, primarily among public universities, are causing growing concern, with significant potential to impact student access. Expense is one factor likely to drive some international students to explore more cost-effective alternatives in other parts of the world – for example in South Africa, which has recently emerged as a top receiving country on the African continent. This outflux would not merely be a loss to the US global classroom, it would also be a significant loss to local and state economies, which benefit immensely from the attendance and consequent labour market expertise provided by international students.
At Illinois, we are very proud of the success that our university has had in attracting exceptional international students, particularly given that we have not undertaken recruitment initiatives. However, as we look towards the future, we recognise the need to intensify efforts to diversify the demographic composition of our student body, focusing on attracting students from regions that are strategic but under-represented. In that regard, a strong institutional commitment is needed to maintain a diverse community of students, faculty and staff to ensure that we proactively evolve and adapt – rather than merely respond – to trends in demand.
We must remain committed to international excellence, both in terms of the students and faculty we bring to campus, as well as the opportunities we afford our students. At Illinois, we take very seriously the responsibility of training the next generation of national and international leaders. With the increasing impact of globalisation and our current socio-political climate, producing globally competent students is no longer optional: it is imperative. Universities must invest in that goal.
Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela
Vice-provost for international affairs and global strategies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign