Probable and preferable futures of internationalisation

Probable and preferable futures of internationalisation

What does the future hold for internationalisation? A distinction can be made between a probable and preferable future. The former takes a reactive approach to the cultural, social, economic, political and academic contexts affecting the international dimensions of higher education. The latter focuses on a strategic, more interventionist approach, ensuring that governments and universities take the necessary steps to shape and monitor the preferred direction of international higher education.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the probable and preferable futures of internationalisation from a sector-level perspective.

An influential political actor

Tertiary education holds a position of increased influence and importance in today’s world. Other policy sectors/actors such as trade, economic development, immigration, foreign affairs, industry, labour, science and technology recognise the potential of international higher education (IHE) for national prosperity and international positioning/relations. The result being that while higher education works on its own agenda, other sectors recognise the importance of international education and look for ways it can be used to meet their goals – another sign that IHE has become a more influential political actor. New partnerships between education and other policy actors can work productively on joint priorities, or alternatively, IHE can be co-opted to serve other more powerful actors’ agendas. Both can and do happen simultaneously.

Internationalisation has to be looked at in relation to macro issues such as demographic changes, liberalisation of the markets, the move to a more knowledge-based society, the ICT revolution, the short term economic focus of national foreign policies, and the reality of the bottom billion in poverty. Four major IHE trends bear witness to the impact of these global issues: the trade and commercialisation of higher education, the great brain race to serve the knowledge economy, new crossborder education arangements between sending and receiving countries, and finally a preoccupation with national or regional self-interest and competitiveness. The near and probable future builds on these trends.

Given the global diversity of higher education needs, issues and provision, the probable future scenarios can touch on many different elements of IHE. Only a few are addressed here.

Multinational universities and edu-glomerates

‘Multinational’ universities are known as single institutions that have satellite operations in other countries, strategic international networks, joint degree programmes, global research projects; in short, a broad international engagement programme at home and abroad. It is probable that these will multiply in the future through strategic alliances with overseas partners/investors and a more liberalised higher education market. ‘Edu-glomerates’ may emerge as an alternative to a multinational university. An ‘edu-glomerate’ extends the concept of economic free education zones or hubs and can be a private or governmental initiative, which offers a marketplace of education and training providers housed in the same location and using common facilities. Students can mix and match individual courses from a variety of education and training providers using a common and recognised credit system. In this scenario a key issue is the provider of the academic qualification. The ‘edu-glomerate’ could offer its own credential under a national licensing scheme or individual providers could establish their own prerequisites for conferring their degree. In this scenario, the franchising of the credential may be as important as franchising the academic programme itself.

Quality assurance and accreditation

Quality assurance and accreditation processes have definitely been internationalised and become a critical issue for monitoring the quality and legality of cross-border education activities. These laudable efforts need to be closely monitored so as to curb current tendencies and a probable future where a universal model of accreditation becomes an agent of standardisation or alternatively, nothing more than a ‘branding label’. Along similar lines, a future based on regionalised or globalised meta-profiles of competences can bring quality to the academic offer but at the risk of homogenisation.

Open Education Resources

The Open Education Resources (OER) movement has a positive role to play in the internationalisation of higher education and will likely take on increased prominence in the near to medium future. The same can be said about the new Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and creating virtual environments for highly interactive and international learning–teaching opportunities. While virtual mobility will never replicate the benefits of physical academic mobility, it broadens students’ access to international and intercultural learning experiences. The challenge for these new developments remains in ensuring quality, access, and respect for the diversity of learners and indigenous ways of knowing.

Increased backlash and lack of support for international higher education

Another possible future scenario worthy of consideration is a major backlash and reduced support for internationalisation. The issues and trends outlined above are causing concern that internationalisation of higher education is not leading to the academic, knowledge creation, capacity building and socio-cultural benefits originally envisioned. Secondly, that the increased revenues promised from cross-border education activities and international student recruitment have not materialised nor are sustainable. Thus, for reasons not related to academic rationales, one may see a future of less public support for internationalisation of higher education. One needs a crystal ball to forecast whether private sources of funding and support such as foundations will step in but it is highly unlikely. A more probable future will be an increase in private for-profit providers and initiatives. Furthermore, governments may attribute increased importance to higher education as a tool for soft power driven by self-interest and competitiveness and ignore a preferred future, which is built on international cooperation and solidarity for scientific, socio-cultural and environmental benefits.


While changes in policies and programmes are important, it is primarily a question of values because values inform priorities, rationales, goals, strategies and outcomes. International higher education will be more likely to reach the preferred future if collaboration instead of competition prevails to solve some of the world’s pressing problems, if mutual benefits instead of self-interest dominate foreign relations, if capacity building prevails over status building, and if academic rationales are given equal or more attention than economic and political motivations.

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