30 March 2017
by Ellen Hazelkorn

Why internationalisation matters

Internationalisation is now recognised as essential for strengthening the interconnectivity of higher education institutions and countries, argues Ellen Hazelkorn in a blog for the Finnish Education Evaluation Council.

International mobility is a global phenomenon, and growing. The number of international tertiary students enrolled worldwide increased by 50 per cent between 2005 and 2012. As many as 4.5m students were enrolled outside of their home countries in 2012, and the OECD estimates that the total number will reach 8m by 2025. Once seen primarily as cultural exchange, internationalisation is now recognised as essential for strengthening the interconnectivity of higher education institutions, and countries, in an increasingly borderless and interdependent world.

According to NAFSA, internationalisation involves ensuring graduates are better prepared as global citizens – capable of living and working successfully in the global economy, making an effective and meaningful contribution to society, and harnessing discovery and innovation to help solve societal challenges at home and abroad. The importance of these objectives ensures that internationalisation is a strategic priority for governments and higher education institutions (HEIs).

Finland’s own experience reflects these international trends. The Strategy for the Internationalisation of Higher Education Institutions in Finland 2009–2015 emphasised the importance of ensuring ‘the development of national strengths through international cooperation’. According to CIMO, the number of students studying abroad and the number of study periods abroad have been rising since the early 2000s, and have been fairly balanced across universities and universities of applied sciences. Over the same period, incoming degree students to Finland increased more than three-fold. However, in both instances, growth has begun to slow in recent years.

A similar experience is reflected in Finland’s contribution to global scientific publications – growing in the period prior to 2012 but declining slightly thereafter. That decline, like that of students, is partly explained by increasing global competitiveness – with new countries, especially in Asia, emerging as attractive host countries and growth in the overall number of publications. Significantly, bibliometric analysis shows that internationally collaborative publications have greater scientific impact than those written in Finland only.

The 2015 international panel review of Finnish higher education remarked upon these issues, and the challenges facing Finland – challenges shared by many (developed) countries. While student mobility is important, the report recommended a more comprehensive approach to internationalisation. This would involve, inter alia: greater collaboration in teaching and research, study programmes shaped by internationalisation-at-home, foreign language proficiency, participation in international networks, and developing a heightened and deeper understanding and global awareness of issues and cultures. International benchmarking, such as that promoted by FINHEEC/FINEEC, is a vital part of the process.

Internationalisation is especially important today. Recent developments around the world are putting higher education at odds with emerging nationalist, xenophobic and intolerant thinking and policies in many countries. Universities and colleges that have prided themselves on working across borders of country and culture now find themselves dealing with governments which are campaigning to keep out foreigners.

These developments threaten the fundamental values of higher education – multiculturalism, international collaboration, free flow of people and ideas, and broadly liberal social values. But, most of all, they threaten higher education’s paramount value of the pursuit of truth.

These events highlight another challenge. As universities and college collaborate with peers internationally and pursue international reputation and status, evidence from the US and UK suggests that HEIs may be leaving their local communities behind. Pursuit of ‘world-classness’ is driving a schism between local/national and global responsibilities and priorities.

Student mobility has been the most visible part of internationalisation, but not all students are willing or able to spend time abroad. Strengthening and embedding internationalisation ‘at home’ and ‘on campus’ is therefore more vital than ever. This means building and establishing authentic links between the institution and its many publics, and making internationalisation real and meaningful for wider society.

Some actions to consider:

  • Develop an ‘engagement agenda’ which embraces comprehensive internationalisation;
  • Use/integrate real-life problems to fuel learning, and develop students by putting them up against problems/challenges that necessitate drawing on many disciplines, working in teams and collaborating with students & organisations around the world to solve them;
  • Use internationalisation to better equip students to meet challenges of living/working in globalised society/world economy;
  • Develop evaluation framework and define wider range of grading instruments to assess the contribution of internationalisation, and its impacts and benefits on learning, the university and society.