November 2014


Internationalization of education

Jane Knight - Adjunct Professor, Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education in OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), University of Toronto

Globalization is a 'process that focuses on the worldwide flow of ideas, resources, people, economy, values, culture, knowledge, goods, services, and technology', while internationalization of higher education is described as 'the process of integrating an international, intercultural and global dimension into the goals, teaching/learning, research and service functions of a university or higher education system'. Internationalization emphasizes the relationship between and among nations, people, cultures, institutions, systems while globalization stresses the concept of worldwide flow of economy, ideas, culture, etc. The difference between the concept of 'worldwide flow' and the notion of 'relationship among nations' is both striking and profound. Thus these two concepts are very much related to each other but at the same time different. Debate continues whether internationalization of higher education is a catalyst, reactor or agent of globalization.

There is no recipe or one set of indicators for an internationalized university. Internationalization is a process of change which is tailored to meet the individual needs and interests of each higher education entity. Consequently, there is no 'one size fits all' model of internationalization. Adopting a set of objectives and strategies which are 'in vogue' and for 'branding' purposes only negates the principle that each program, institution, or country needs to determine its individual approach to internationalization based on its own clearly articulated rationales, goals and expected outcomes. This recognizes that the internationalization process is driven by an assessment of individual needs and priorities and that a 'formulaic' or latest fad approach is not appropriate, beneficial or sustainable. This truth can also present challenges. For example, what if an institution or county sees internationalization of higher education as a tool for economic gain or political advantage? This is an example where the academic purposes and values of cooperation, mutual benefit and partnership need to be emphasized.

After several decades of intense development internationalization has grown in scope, scale and importance. There is no question that it has transformed the world of higher education but internationalization has also undergone fundamental changes itself. The key question is whether the changes have been for better or worse? For instance, twenty-five years ago could anyone have imagined that international student mobility in 2014 would be big business and more closely aligned to the recruitment of brains for national innovation agendas than helping developing countries build human capacity. Recent national and worldwide surveys of university internationalization priorities and rationales show that establishing an international profile or global standing is becoming more important that reaching international standards of excellence. Capacity building through international cooperation projects is being replaced by status building initiatives to gain world class recognition and higher rankings. Awarding two degrees from institutions located in different countries based on the workload for one diploma is being promoted through some rather dubious double degree programs. And all of this is in the name of internationalization?

At the same time, there are countless examples of positive initiatives which illustrate how collaborative scholarship, crossborder education exchange, and campus based internationalization strategies contribute to the development of individuals, institutions, nations, and the world at large. The benefits of internationalization are many and varied, so are potential risks and unintended consequences.

Quality issues and challenges related to internationalization

It is forecasted that by 2025 the demand for international education will grow to 7.2 million students- a quantum leap from 1.2 million students in 2000. Some, but certainly not all of this demand, will be met by student mobility. Consequently, the number of new providers are delivering programs to students in their home countries is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. It is no longer just students, faculty, and researchers who are internationally mobile - -academic programs are being delivered across borders and branch campuses are being established in developing and developed countries around the world.

While, these new developments are intended to increase access to higher education and meet the appetite for foreign credentials and employment, there are serious issues related to the quality of the academic offer, the integrity of the new types of providers, and the recognition of credentials. The increase in the number of foreign degree mills (selling 'parchment' only degrees) and accreditation mills (selling bogus accreditations for programs or institutions), and rogue for-profit providers (not recognized by national authorities) are realities that face students, parents, employers, and the academic community. Who would have guessed two decades ago that international education would be struggling to deal with fake degrees and accreditations; academic credentials that are earned but not recognized; and non-regulated 'fly by night' institutions? Of course, it is equally important to acknowledge innovative developments by bona fide new providers and universities who are delivering high quality programs and legitimate degrees through new types of arrangements and partnerships (franchise, twinning, branch campus). The perpetual issue of balancing cost, quality and access significantly challenges the benefits and risks of crossborder education.

Regional institutional agreements and networks 

It if is often believed that the greater number of international agreements or network memberships a university has the more prestigious and attractive it is to other institutions and students. But practice shows that most institutions cannot manage or even benefit from a hundred plus agreements. To maintain active and fruitful relationships requires a major investment of human and financial resources from individual faculty members, departments and international offices. Thus the long list of international partners often reflects paper based agreements not productive partnerships. Quantity is perceived as more important than quality and the international agreements list is more of a status symbol than a record of functional academic collaborations. A more recent trend is the paring down of the number of agreements to ten or twenty institution-wide priority partnerships. This can lead to more comprehensive and sustainable relationships but also to a sense of disgruntlement among faculty members and researchers about a top down approach to international collaboration and the curtailment of individual international research or curricular interests.

Academic mobility

The expansion of academic mobility schemes is a hallmark of internationalization today. Twenty five years ago, could anyone have anticipated that international academic mobility for students, as well as scholars and professors, would have the potential to grow into a highly competitive multi-million dollar international recruitment business. Several countries are investing in major marketing campaigns to attract the best and brightest talent to study and work in their institutions in order to supply the 'brain power' for innovation and research agendas .The complexities and challenges related to academic and profession mobility should not be underestimated. Nor should the potential benefits. But, it is impossible to ignore the latest race for attracting international students and academics for 'brain power' and for 'income generation'. The original goal of helping developing country students to complete a degree in another country and then return home to contribute to national development is fading fast as nations compete in the 21st century brain race.

It is impossible to gaze into a crystal ball to forecast the future, but if the experiences of the last decade are harbingers of the future it is likely that the competition for the brightest of students and scholars will only increase bringing with it benefits for some countries and higher education institutions and losses for others. Perhaps technology and social networking will bring new opportunities for brain sharing that will mitigate the overall effect of winners and losers, but the current obsession with global rankings and the economic competitiveness agenda suggest otherwise. For better or worse, the great brain race through student mobility is likely to be in active mode for a while.

A recent trend has been the establishment of collaborative programs between institutions in different countries that lead to double (or multiple degrees) and in some cases joint degrees -although the latter face steep legal constraints.

Joint programs are intended to provide a rich international and comparative academic experience for students and to improve their opportunities for employment. But, with all new ideas, come questionable adaptations and unintended consequences. For instance, in some cases, double degrees can be nothing more than double counting one set of course credits. Situations exist where two/three credentials (one from each participating institution) are conferred for little more than the work load required for one degree. While it may be very attractive for students (and potential employees) to have two degrees from institutions in two different countries, the situation can be described as the thin edge of academic fraud if course requirements for two full degrees are not completed or differentiated learning outcomes not achieved . It is important to point out that there are many excellent and innovative joint and double degree programs being offered, but one of the unanticipated consequences is the potential misuse or abuse of degree granting and recognition protocols.

The impact of new forms of international academic mobility on the recognition and promotion of indigenous and diverse cultures is a subject that evokes strong positions and sentiments. Many believe that modern information and communication technologies and the movement of people, ideas, and cultures across national boundaries presents new opportunities to promote one's culture to other countries and to enhance the fusion and hybridization of cultures. An important benefit is a greater understanding of cultural diversity and hopefully stronger intercultural appreciation and communications skills.
Others contend that these same forces are eroding national cultural identities and that, instead of creating new hybrid cultures, indigenous cultures are being homogenized which in most cases means Westernized. Because education has traditionally been seen as a vehicle of acculturation, these arguments focus on the specifics of curriculum content, language of instruction (particularly the increase in English) and the teaching/learning process in international education.


It is still too soon to say what the impact of MOOCs on international higher education. In general, MOOCs have a powerful role to play in broadening access to non-formal learning opportunities which is an underdeveloped area of international higher education. However, the question looms large as to how long it will be before the majority of MOOCs will offer formal credentials accredited by the providing institution or a third party. Far into the future, the crystal ball presents a faint and very fuzzy picture of students customizing their own menu of programs by combining courses offered by local, regional and international public and private providers; through face to face, distance and a combination of the two – all of which will be accredited by different agencies with a final qualification being offered by a local or TNE provider. MOOCs may eventually be seen as a stimulus for this scenario! Who knows?

Universities rankings 

There is no question that international and regional rankings of universities have become more popular and problematic in the last five years. The heated debate about their validity, reliability and value continues. But at the same time, university presidents state that a measurable outcome of internationalization is the achievement of a specific position in one or more of the global league tables. But it is an incorrect assumption that the purpose of a university's internationalization efforts is to improve global brand or standing. This confuses an international marketing campaign with an internationalization plan. The former is a promotion and branding exercise; the latter is a strategy to integrate an international, intercultural and global dimension into the goals and teaching, research, and service functions of a university. The objectives, anticipated outcomes and investment in a global branding initiative are different from those required for academic internationalization. It is a myth that an international marketing scheme is the equivalent of an internationalization plan. This does not deny the fact, that a strategic and successful internationalization agenda can lead to more international visibility but recognition is not the goal- it is a by-product.

Internationalization vs. regional characteristics and connection with the local community 

Internationalization acknowledges and builds on local, national and regional priorities, policies and practices. Internationalization is intended to complement, harmonize and extend the local dimension, not dominate it. If this fundamental truth is not respected there is a strong possibility of back lash and for internationalization to be seen as a homogenizing or hegemonic agent. Honoring and building on local culture and context is a fundamental tenet of internationalization.  


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