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Opinion - Understanding internationalisation of higher education: Part 1

2021-04-23  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Understanding internationalisation of higher education: Part 1
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Almost all universities in the world practise internationalisation of higher education in one form or the other, but the concept remains problematic to some academics, both junior and senior academics.  I have mentioned internationalisation of higher education in my previous writings in this column, but from the questions I have received on the subject, it appears that more information is needed on this topic. Therefore, I have conducted some research on this crucial practice which I will present in two instalments: Understanding internationalisation of higher education Part 1 and Part 2.  

What is interesting to note from the literature is that internationalisation of education is an old phenomenon practised by itinerant students in the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, explaining why the European Union, for instance, has the Erasmus internationalisation exchange programme (Knight & de Wit, 1995). Itinerant students moved from one institution to another, and also from one country to the other usually with their mentors following them to those places. 

The way Knight and de Wit trace the internationalisation of education reveals the multiplicity of its forms over the years up to now, when it is regarded as a norm for almost every university that practises it. They also illustrate the reasons of internationalisation in the various periods or epochs. Internationalisation rationales and motivations, according to Knight (2004), include academic, economic, political and social rationales. The major rationales for internationalisation in most universities are academic and socio-cultural rationales as the institutions have not developed to the capacity of recruiting many international students for economic gains. 

For instance, some of the institution have not developed to such an advanced stage that they can offer transnational education or offshore education as part of internationalisation, as some universities in the developed world do. Transnational education is the provision of higher education across borders or cross border higher education or what has been termed transnational academic mobility by some scholars.  UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Oranisation) and OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) define transnational education as “cross-border higher education includes higher education that takes place in situations where the teacher, student, programme, institution/provider or course materials cross national jurisdictional borders. Cross-border higher education may include higher education by public/private and not-for-profit/for-profit providers. It encompasses a wide range of modalities, in a continuum from face-to-face (taking various forms such as students travelling abroad and campuses abroad) to distance learning (using a range of technologies and including e-learning)” (UNESCO 2005 p. 4).

According to OECD (2004a, p.215ff.), there are different ways in which programmes and higher education institutions cross borders to engage with other countries. One of these ways is higher education institutions establishing their own campuses in other countries, what has become to known as international branch campuses. Lawton and Katsomitros (2012) present a survey of international branch campuses. They discuss the motivations and drivers of offshore higher education. They also distinguish between international branch campuses and transnational education activities, the latter not requiring the establishment of physical infrastructure in foreign countries, unlike the former. I had the opportunity of touring Britain’s Nottingham University international branch in Malaysia and saw for myself how an international branch campus operates. There are international branch campuses of renowned universities from USA, UK and Australia operating in India, Western and Eastern Europe, India, Mexico, parts of Latin America and a few in Africa. 

It is important to note that most universities in developing countries do not have the luxury to offer offshore education; mainly because of lack of funding and other pressing issues. However, the University of South Africa has stood the test of time by offering transnational education to the world over the decades through distance education. Thus, UNISA is most probably the only institution in Africa that provides transnational education as described in the UNESCO and OECD definition given above. The Open University of Tanzania and Midlands State University of Zimbabwe are some of the universities which practise other forms of transnational education. 

Another aspect of internationalisation of education is ‘comprehensive internationalisation’. Some universities in the United States of America, Canada, Australia and Europe practise comprehensive internationalisation. When internationalisation becomes comprehensive, “…it shapes the values, and touches the entire education enterprise …[it] not only impacts all campus life, but the institution’s external frames of reference, partnerships and relationships” (Hudzik, 2011, p.10). Student mobility, exchange and international education are elements of comprehensive internationalisation. Drawing from the experiences of higher education institutions in the USA, Hudzik and Stohl (2012), clearly explain the concept of comprehensive internationalisation and point to the suggestion that when it is fully operational or implemented, all academic disciplines should contain an international dimension. Therefore, internationalisation “…influences all academic units and content and pedagogy throughout curricula and involves all students, all institutional clientele, and faculty” (Hudzik & Stohl, 2012, p.13).  

While the type of internationalisation described here may be tenable in some institutions in some developed countries with a long history of internationalisation, for instance Monash University, it is not realistic in most universities in Africa, for example. The challenges experienced by most African universities in implementing their internationalisation strategies are clear testimony that comprehensive internationalisation is untenable in universities in third world countries. It is therefore a misnomer to talk of comprehensive internationalisation at our local institutions in the sense described by Hudzik and Stohl above. It is also reasonable to argue there is no uniformity in the implementation of comprehensive internationalisation in universities where it is practised.

As Marginson and van de Wende (2007) explain the difference between the two, internationalisation “refers to any relationship across borders between nations, or between single institutions situated within different national systems … [whereas] globalisation [is a] process of worldwide engagement and convergence associated with the growing role of global systems that criss-cross many national borders” (p. 11). Current internationalisation of education activities take place in a world that has become a global village; the relationship between these two cross-border relations is crucial to understand the internationalisation of education by universities. The symbiotic nature of internationalisation and globalisation makes them jointly productive (Marginson & van der Wende, 2007).Institutions of higher education therefore need to carefully plan their internationalisation activities.

Read Part 2 next week.


2021-04-23  Staff Reporter

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