Third, and perhaps most importantly, this trend fosters a critical analysis of what it means to internationalise teaching, learning, research and the overall higher education experience. It also keeps alive the debate about why, how and how well different higher education institutions around the world pursue internationalisation.
Quite certainly, specialists in quality assurance and-or evaluation would take me to task for not drawing precise and clear distinctions between the myriad terms used to describe the practice in which we endeavour to make sense of our internationalisation efforts.
Indeed, each specific term – evaluation, assessment, review, audit etc. – depicts a process that may have a slightly different purpose and methodology. Ultimately, however, the aim is to know whether or not internationalisation goals are being achieved; and if we fall short of that, why this is the case and what is required to redress the situation. Evaluation-assessment-auditing is part of institutional development and learning, and is thus absolutely essential in higher education institutions.
When we apply these processes to internationalisation, however, the key is to ensure that the goals or objectives of internationalisation also become subjects of the assessment process. It is not sufficient to undertake a ‘fitness for purpose’ evaluation of internationalisation; it is necessary to also assess the ‘fitness of the purpose’, both for the institution itself and for any international partners involved.
The International Association of Universities’ (IAU) experience with institutional reviews of internationalisation is not long-standing or vast, yet. IAU only recently developed and launched its Internationalisation Strategies Advisory Service (ISAS). Our work in this area is, nevertheless, highly diverse since ISAS projects to date have taken place in three different world regions. And despite the vastly dissimilar contextual realities in each university, each ISAS project still confirmed that the dominant understanding of internationalisation of higher education remains relatively narrow or only partial.
Consequently, internationalisation tends to be implemented in a limited manner. And when institutions embark on an assessment, they are likely to focus on just a few, basic aspects, using a limited set of (usually quantitative) indicators, such as the number of international students on campus, the number of exchange partnerships, the teaching of foreign languages and the hosting of visitors from abroad.
Despite the clear importance of these indicators of internationalisation, are they really a mark that the goals of internationalisation have been achieved? How much do they tell us about the impact of these actions on the learning that takes place? How well can the academic community reply to the ‘why’ questions that can be raised about these actions, particularly when they require institutional investment?
Perhaps the most important value of the ISAS service lies less in the obvious results (such as the report and the data collected) and more in the process whereby, for example, institutional committees learn what is actually going on in their university; groups form to discuss why certain internationalisation priorities and projects have or are being developed; and mutual learning takes place about what has been successful and what is failing.
Stimulating such ongoing analysis of the ‘why, how and how well’ of the internationalisation strategy in turn leads to a much larger number of stakeholders with an improved understanding and commitment to internationalisation as an institutional policy in which they have a role, a stake and a responsibility. Scholars, policy-makers and practitioners agree that internationalisation of higher education is a complex and multi-faceted process which ideally permeates all aspects of the higher education enterprise.
If audits, evaluations and projects such as ISAS and others can mobilise more institutional actors to focus on the fundamental academic reasons for internationalisation – and the impact it can and should have on the quality of learning, research and outreach – then they are valuable instruments to promote innovation and improvement, not simply labels that are pursued for prestige purposes.
* Eva Egron-Polak is secretary general of the International Association of Universities. This article, reprinted with permission, appeared in the January 2012 edition of the ACA newsletter,Education Europe, produced monthly by the Brussels-based Academic Cooperation Association. Egron-Polak will be speaking on this same subject at an upcoming ACA seminar in Brussels in March 2012, “Internationalisation Audits. Assessing and improving institutional strategies”.