07 Oct 2015

The moving target of internationalisation of higher education in Europe

European-Parliament-reportThis critical and thought-provoking piece is the second of three blog posts in this week’s series highlighting the European Parliament report Internationalisation of Higher Education. In the previous blog post of this series, one of the report’s authors addressed some of the tangible conclusions of the study. In this blog post, however, the focus shifts to what was left unsaid.

Internationalisation has been one of the top priorities on the agenda of European policy makers and universities for over two decades. We find this goal expressed in policy documents and various reports, with very ambitious and optimistic perspectives. In May 2001, European ministers in charge of higher education released in Prague a statement that would shape the European Higher Education Area. In this communiqué we find that “higher education and research is and should be an important determinant of Europe’s international attractiveness and competitiveness”.

A new study

In the new study Internationalisation of Higher Education, by authors Hans de Wit, Fiona Hunter, Laura Howard and Eva Egron-Polak, we find a comprehensive study of internationalisation of higher education in the current European context. This is undoubtedly a significant endeavour that completes and updates the literature in this field. Providing an overview of main European and global trends, the report summarises key developments in the field of internationalisation of higher education. Using extensive surveys, ten national reports and an interesting exploration of the role of digital learning in cross border education, this extensive study requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education is too ambitious in some parts, while some important issues are left unexplored.

This is surprising, as there is little doubt that European institutions currently need an in-depth analysis on these issues. For example, the report devotes extensive attention to present higher education in Colombia, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, Australia, United States and South Africa, but squeezes 10 pages in on the important part of “Internationalisation of higher education in Europe: Future directions”. At a time when opinion polls indicate that a referendum leading to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is a very real possibility – one that can have a substantial impact on higher education in the UK and the rest of Europe – not even mentioning these challenges is leaving one of the most significant parts of this field utterly unexplored.

Optimism and obstacles

The authors also align their study to the unabated tradition of optimism and positive promises for the future: “we can say that the future of [internationalisation of higher education] in Europe looks potentially bright, but its further positive development and impact will only take place if the various stakeholders and participants maintain an open dialogue about rationales, benefits, means, opportunities and obstacles in this ongoing process of change.” Unfortunately, the report leaves us to guess what the main “obstacles” are in this “ongoing process of change”.

Maybe it is the rise of the border walls in Europe, or the impact of official discourses such as those from Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, who recently stated for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his aim is “to keep Europe Christian.” There is also the ongoing refugee crisis, with a local and international impact that cannot be ignored by European universities. Maybe it is these recent developments − along with the economic challenges for Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and other members of the European Union − that stand as obstacles and future challenges for policymakers and academics in Europe.

This extensive report offers a useful set of recommendations for the future. They are designed as reference points for policy makers, academics and decision makers in higher education, that are warned that the future of European higher education area depends on their power to address “substantial differences in higher education systems, procedures and funding”. The authors demonstrate again their positive outlook with a supreme confidence that readers already know what “substantial differences” mean and imply in the complex puzzle of higher education systems within the European Union and the European higher education area.

This study adds 326 pages of European literature on carefully designed national reports, policy analysis and positive projections on the future that are based on the current potential, as it stands presented in the reports. European universities and politicians probably need these pages, but what they need much more is something that is missing: a courageous analysis of successes and failures, of present challenges for real students and institutions in the current context, and an analysis of trends in internationalisation of higher education when fast-changing technology, economies and political realities converge to create both opportunities and a multitude of crises.

Stefan is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Australia.

The European Parliament study was carried out by Hans de Wit and Fiona Hunter of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy, Eva Egron-Polak of the International University Association, and EAIE President Laura Howard. It is available for download.