Is comprehensive internationalisation feasible across the European Higher Education Area?

Is comprehensive internationalisation feasible across the European Higher Education Area?

It’s difficult to identify a universal model of comprehensive internationalisation that would be relevant and effective in such a broad arena as the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) where, from one country to the next and sometimes within the same country, opportunities and obstacles that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) face can vary tremendously. Read on to find out what Coventry University, winner of the 2014 Insitutional Award for Innovation in Internationalisation has to say about this.

We know from the abundant literature on internationalisation that what I would call experiential internationalisation – internationalisation at home referring to internationalisation of the curriculum, plus internationalisation of the student and staff experiences – has developed very unevenly across institutions. Whilst the IAU’s 2014 Global survey tells us that across the 1336 institutions that responded to the survey, the nature of internationalisation policies and processes is not always clear and the reports can embrace very different realities.

Commercial or experiential internationalisation?

In the UK context, internationalisation remained synonymous with recruiting large numbers of international students and having substantial numbers of non-UK staff for a long time. And these criteria still stand alone in the rare league table that takes internationalisation into account, the QS World Ranking, although internationalised research activities are also increasingly gaining prominence in league table classifications. In addition to these dimensions of internationalisation, Trans-National Education has also gathered incredible momentum in recent years, suffice it to see the number of workshops addressing quality assurance and other issues on TNE at international education conferences. But here again, this is a form of internationalisation with largely commercial objectives.

In terms of more experiential internationalisation, the numbers of incoming and outgoing Erasmus has long been and still largely remains the key metric to ascertain how ‘internationalised’ HEIs are. This is not to say that nothing else happens, in terms of 1) internationalised syllabi, 2) more systematic use of comparative international perspectives in programmes, 3) Short-term  international mobilities, whether accredited (eg fieldtrips) or not (eg some summer programmes), but these are rarely recorded.

The UK – innovating or catching up?

The UK was lagging behind in terms of international mobility opportunities for a long time but seems to be catching up if we take the rise of request for Erasmus funding in the past two years. The International Unit also launched its UK Strategy for Outward Mobility in 2013, and the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) has started recording all types of mobility and related funding invested by institutions in 2014.

New practices are developing which reflect the new orthodoxies, and substantial bodies of evidence show that international experiences boost academic performances and employability prospects, and even accelerate career progression in the longer term (eg HEFCE’s Attainment in Higher Education report, 2009; British Council’s Global Skills Gaps, 2011; CIHE’s From Global Graduates to Global Leaders, 2011; CHE’s Erasmus Impact Survey, 2014).

But what about all those who do not spend semesters or years abroad for lack of funding and/or social cultural capital? On the one hand, Internationalisation of the curriculum is largely seen as the remedy for those less well-off who would/could not spend a year abroad. On the other hand there can always be shorter opportunities for international mobility, like fieldtrips.

Widening participation and quality assurance

At CU, we have long understood that internationalisation can only be comprehensive, if it is to address social, cultural and economic inequalities. Internationalisation of the curriculum and internationalisation of the life on campus (eg language programmes for all, cultural events, engagement with the diversity amongst the student body as cultural capital to promote intercultural sharing and dialogue, mentoring programmes where UK and non-UK students help and learn from one another, etc) have become key platforms for developments in our catalogue of international opportunities. This has enabled us rapidly to offer some form of international experience to thousands of students (and staff) at no or little costs. Notwithstanding we remain very mindful of the distinction between internationalisation outputs (ie sheer volumes of international experiences) and the crucial necessity to make sure that we keep outcomes on our radar, so every experience is meaningful and a catalyst for reflection and learning about others and oneself, about differentiated ways of thinking and doing, and about others’ values (Deardoff, 2006).

Further, with substantial investment on the part of HEIs that can afford it, many short-term international experiences can be offered to students (more than 2000 at CU in 2013–2014). But here again, without preparation, exploitation and reflection, in a world without international or intercultural learning, these will not be meaningful, and therefore useless, just some nice memories and exotic selfies.

High-quality, experiential internationalisation across the EHEA?

As HEIs develop their respective catalogues of international offers, it is indeed fundamental to foster quality assurance mechanisms, or we will just be promoting academic tourism. To do so, CU has embraced the lessons of the vast literature on Inter-Cultural Competency (ICC) acquisition (eg Deardoff  et al, 2009; Leask, 2013), embedding ICC systematically across all activities in its catalogue.

This is a challenging area as the very idea of a catalogue of opportunities that are different in nature, durations, focus, within or without the curriculum, triggers another set of issues if we are to develop Global Graduates or Global Citizens: we aim to offer them a multiplicity of international experiences whilst keeping ICC as our main strategy for ensuring quality as well as quantity, outcomes as well as outputs.

How do we offer a journey to our students (and to our staff for the latter to lead on the development of internationalised curricula) which is cohesive across the different activities and corresponding forms of ICC acquisition, and still coherent in purpose, whilst taking into account the variety of aspirations and means our students may have?  And, coming back to the initial point, in other national contexts where HEIs have more reduced capacity than in the UK (eg financial capacity and/or in terms of infrastructure, like Public Sector HEIs in France for instance), how do we translate the UK experience to other national contexts so that we start disseminating good practice across the EHEA?

Some benchmarks are sorely needed, at national and EU levels, and some case for investment will need to be made effectively to help our graduates make the transition between their national HE context and the increasingly internationalised world of work. This is another story, and this award has helped map out some contours of the challenges we face.

Author: Jean-Bernard Adrey, Director of International Experience and Mobility Service, Coventry University, UK