following is a guest post by Uwe Brandenburg, project manager at the Centre for Higher Education Development Consult, in Germany, and Hans de Wit, a professor of internationalization at the School of Economics and Management, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands.
Everybody talks about “internationalization” and we see it everywhere on the agenda. The global competition for talents, the emergence of international branch campuses, the debate on use of agents for recruitment of students, all this is now widely debated on all levels, be it international-education administrators, university presidents, associations of universities, politicians, or other key players in higher education around the world. We also see that more people than ever advocate for the enhancement of study-abroad programs, more focus on global citizenship in the curriculum, and express concern about the loss of foreign-language education. Even more, budget constraints have forced governments in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and continental Europe to cut back on their support for international education while at the same time universities are forced to bolster their budgets with more international recruitment. In addition, emerging economies in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have become more pro-active in stimulating the internationalization of their education. So where are we heading? Is international education still on the rise or has it lost its way? And if so, how do we get it back on track again?
A few months ago we wrote a provocative essay, “The End of Internationalization,” published in the newsletter of the Center of International Higher Education at Boston College (number 62, winter 2011). Over the last two decades, we stated, “the concept of the internationalization of higher education is moved from the fringe of institutional interest to the very core. In the late 1970s up to the mid-1980s, activities that can be described as internationalization were usually neither named that way nor carried high prestige and were rather isolated and unrelated. In the late 1980s changes occurred: Internationalization was invented and carried on, ever increasing its importance. New components were added to its multidimensional body in the past two decades, moving from simple exchange of students to the big business of recruitment, and from activities impacting on an incredibly small elite group to a mass phenomenon.” We called for a critical reflection on the changing concept of internationalization.
We are not the only ones who call for such a debate. John K. Hudzik, former vice president for global engagement and strategic projects at Michigan State University, wrote recently an extensive paper on the notion of what he calls “comprehensive internationalization,” which he defines as “a commitment, confirmed through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education.” In Europe, the notion of “mainstream internationalization” follows similar ways of thinking, as does the plea for “deep Internationalization” in Australia. What these phrases have in common is the shared feeling that international education no longer can be seen as a fragmented list of activities executed by international offices and a small group of motivated internationalists among staff and students. Internationalization should on the contrary be integrated, broad, and part of a an institution’s core mission. Most recently, the International Association of Universities established an ad hoc expert group to discuss the future of internationalization over the coming year.
This debate on moving internationalization from the margin to the center of higher education is most welcome. As we stated in our essay, gradually, the why and what of internationalization have been taken over by the how. Whereas in the beginning none asked for accountability, this has changed, but as usual we react in the way of “give the emperor what the emperor demands” but not more. Which means that we mainly focus on what we do, and how much of what we continue to do as if nothing has changed. Thus instruments of internationalization have become the main objective: more exchange, more degree mobility, and more recruitment. Even the alternative European movement of “internationalization at home” of the late 1990s, followed by similar initiatives in the United States of ”internationalizing the campus” and “internationalization of the curriculum” in Australia, which promoted a shift in focus from mobility to the curriculum and the teaching and learning, have shifted rapidly into this instrumental mood.
Another problem is in the connotations we have concerning internationalization and globalization. Today, internationalization has become the white knight of higher education, the moral ground that needs to be defended, the epitome of justice and equity. The higher-education community still strongly believes that internationalization by definition leads to peace and mutual understanding, which was the driving force behind programs like Fulbright in the 1950s. While gaining its moral weight, its content seems to have deteriorated: the form lost its substance. Internationalization has become a synonym of “doing good,” and people are less into questioning its effectiveness and what it is meant to be: an instrument to improve the quality of education or research.
On the other side, globalization is loaded with negative connotations, and is considered more predominant than internationalization. This formula sees internationalization as  “good” and globalization as ”evil.” Internationalization is claimed to be the last stand for humanistic ideas against the world of pure economic benefits allegedly represented by the term globalization. Alas, this constructed antagonism between internationalization and globalization ignores the fact that activities that are more related to the concept of globalization (higher education as a commodity) are increasingly executed under the flag of internationalization.
International education has become more and more influenced by the commercialization of higher education, but international educators pretended to ignore that. What this attitude in effect does is exacerbate the devaluation of internationalization and the inflation of defensive measures with respect to its commercialization. Nowadays, we tend to be advocates rather than pioneers of internationalization, we are no longer the spearhead of innovation but defenders of traditions. In effect, it means that we are holding firm to traditional concepts and act on them while the world around us moves forward. We–and the authors are part of the “we”–lament about the loss of real mobility and the commercialization of higher education in general and its international component in particular. But at the same time we lose sight of innovative developments such as the emergence of the digital citizen for whom mobility can be at least as much virtual as real.
This is why we feel that there is a danger that internationalization has lost its way, at least in the traditional industrialized countries. Maybe the new thinking about internationalization in higher education has to come from the emerging higher-education sector in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, not polluted by traditional ways of thinking about international education. The development of new concepts such as comprehensive, mainstream or deep internationalization should not take place without active input from those regions. Too much still the debate is taking place among the same crowd in industrialized Western nations. That is why the effort by the International Association of Universities is so relevant in bringing together a diverse group of international educators in a discussion on “reconceptualizing internationalization of higher education” might stimulate the revitalization of international education and bring it back on track. At least, the debate has started.