Inclusion and innovation: internationalisation’s ‘true north’

Inclusion and innovation: internationalisation’s ‘true north’ Helsinki 2019

What do a Chinese doctoral student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, a globally recognised expert in education and pedagogy at Curtin University in Australia, and the Mauritius-born Associate Deputy Provost for International Programs at the University of Delaware in the United States all have in common? Like me, they were actively involved in the 2019 WES-CIHE Summer Institute hosted earlier this month at Boston College. 

This event was organised jointly by World Education Services (WES) and the Boston College Center for International Higher Education. The focus was largely on the work of graduate students and early-career professionals who predominantly represented Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East – not to mention Russia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Trinidad and Tobago – in their personal profiles or research interests. Importantly, the seminar took as its point of departure the key theme of ‘Innovative and inclusive internationalization in higher education’.

Exclusivity and inertia

We’re hearing a lot about these notions of inclusion and innovation these days, and rightly so. The research showcased by the recent WES-CIHE seminar’s student and early career presenters, as well as the conversations prompted and facilitated by the various mid- and advanced-career programme facilitators, served as an important reminder of one of internationalisation’s most profound limitations: its longstanding tendency toward exclusivity and inertia. Intentional or not, the opportunities to engage with international experiences and perspectives that are of high quality, as well as educationally and professionally purposeful, continue to be limited to very small percentages of the world’s higher education students, faculty, and staff. And even when we effectively extend these benefits, it is unclear whether we are delivering on the often lofty promises we connect to the international higher education agenda.

Despite – or perhaps as a result of – years of experience with internationalisation, we operate in ways that may make it difficult for us to expand opportunities to the majority of stakeholders around us and complicate our ability to adopt truly original approaches to this work. As noted internationalisation specialist Betty Leask pronounced at the WES-CIHE seminar, “We simply cannot continue doing the same things we’ve been doing for decades.” Yes, those efforts have brought us to a certain point, and there are reasons to celebrate many of the results that internationalisation’s efforts have achieved to date. But, the future demands more – in fact, much more. And, interestingly, it seems we need to be as attentive to persistent, longstanding problems that continue to vex us as we do to the completely new and unknown challenges that await us over the edge of the horizon.

A matter of commitment

In terms of the need to think differently and aggressively about ongoing shortcomings, a key US example stands out for me. A recent and extensive WES survey, whose results will be released later this year, has found that over 40% of respondents (all international students in the United States) report significant difficulty in making friends with local students. For many of us, this is (sadly) not groundbreaking news. But that’s precisely the problem. With more than 1 million higher education students currently undertaking study or practical training in the US, 40% represents a very large number of individuals failing to make US friends. Yet, cultivating friendships in the host country is arguably one of the most fundamental outcomes that the international mobility experience promises to deliver.

So, how is it – given ALL we know about international student mobility, given that the United States has long been the world’s largest receiving country for international students, and is a higher education system that has for decades prided itself on attention to meaningful, whole-student development – that this is the egregiously poor state of the international student experience in that country? Is our research on these subjects so completely faulty? Is our ability to develop and implement good policies and practices in this area so profoundly lacking? My sense is that the root problem is an inability or unwillingness to commit to authentic inclusion and transformational innovation. Without this sincere commitment, we cannot reasonably expect to allow greater numbers of stakeholders to benefit from all that internationalisation proclaims to offer, nor will we feel compelled to thoroughly understand and overcome the barriers that prevent this from happening.

In the European context, we have important work to attend to, as well. The EAIE’s upcoming annual conference in Helsinki puts the act of ‘encompassing all voices’ front and centre. This gives us all an opportunity to thoughtfully, energetically, and hopefully courageously take a critical look at what inclusion means to each of us and how we can harness its potential. From my perspective, the conversation around inclusion is indeed inextricably linked to considerations of innovation – we face an urgent need to evolve, to deconstruct what we do poorly and to build on what we do well in order to do better. A next generation of professionals and scholars will play a key role in these advancements, and the Helsinki conference’s many sessions aim to push this thinking forward. One session in particular – Share and learn: doctoral students in international higher education – will provide a place for doctoral students researching our field to draw energy and inspiration, not unlike the WES-CIHE Summer Institute. It is vital that the EAIE provides these kinds of opportunities to connect and advance our collective understanding.

‘True north’ or true breadth?

Finding one’s ‘true north’ is a turn of phrase that speaks to the idea of finding one’s ideal direction or orientation. Helsinki does sit in Northern Europe, but in a world in which global imbalances on the basis of geography are profoundly divisive, perhaps there are better ways of expressing this idea today. Within the EAIE and among all who care about the future of international higher education, thinking expansively about inclusion and ambitiously about innovation opens the door on an exciting future for our field, and one that covers the breadth of our ambitions to improve higher education and, by extension, the human condition.

Laura E. Rumbley
EAIE, the NetherlandsLaura is Associate Director of Knowledge Development and Research at the EAIE.