10 Nov 2015

What is mainstreaming internationalisation?

mainstreamingWhen discussing international education in Europe, you will likely hear the concept ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’. Is this just another buzzword? At times it’s referred to as an undesirable force that may lead to internationalisation being reduced to yet another higher education activity. Other times, it’s seen in a positive light as it leads to integrated approaches where people at all levels participate in and co-create processes and activities. Occasionally, it describes how far the field has evolved since the early days of Erasmus.

In academia, the term was first used over a decade ago when Hahn & Teichler (2005) examined the internationalisation of the German higher education system. Case studies reflected the mainstreaming of international activities embedded within general higher education policies and activities in German institutions. Their article highlighted some of the areas expected to change in the coming years triggered by the needs and evolution of internationalisation: the structure of study programmes/degrees, levels of competences of graduates, examination systems, overall pattern of higher education systems, management of institutions, and the evaluation of teaching and study programmes. In the mid-2000s, institutions and even national agencies and ministries were working to mainstream internationalisation in Europe. Fast forward 10 years, de Wit (2015) describes mainstreaming as a concept that “… implies that internationalisation is no longer a separate pillar of university policies and strategies but integrated into all other pillars: education, research, human resources, finances, student affairs, faculties, etc”.

‘Mainstreaming’ vs. ‘comprehensive’


Different regions of the world adopt specific concepts to describe a more integrated approach to internationalisation. Hudzik (2012) describes some of the concepts emerging in different parts of the world that signify a move to more ‘comprehensive internationalisation’. Comprehensive internationalisation is defined as “a commitment, confirmed through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education”. This term is used most frequently in the USA context, whereas ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’ is the parallel phrase in Europe.

De Wit (2015) argues that there are some key differences that distinguish these two concepts. Mainstreaming internationalisation often leads to decentralisation, wherein the operational authority lies with the faculties and specific departments. Some argue this is good practice “because operational authority should lie closer to centres of real expertise, rather than being bottled up in a single office somewhere, so that institutions can be nimble in responding to opportunities” (Usher 2014).

With this fragmentation of authority, Usher (ibid.) asks “Who owns internationalisation?” when the strategic authority is downgraded to operational authority. On the other hand, comprehensive internationalisation encourages leadership and strategic coordination as “the notion of comprehensive internationalization without any point leadership seems absurd” (Hudzik 2011). This where the European approach of ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’ and the USA approach of ‘comprehensive internationalisation’ veer off into two different paths: decentralisation vs. centralisation, respectively.

Centralised vs. decentralised


The USA-based Association for International Education Administrators (AIEA) conducted a survey of their institutional members in 2011 to profile the Senior International Officer (SIO). Out of the 172 respondents, 43% have been in an SIO position for five years or less, indicating that many of these positions may be recent additions to the institution. Over 64% reported a significant change in the way their institutions structure international programmes and offices in the last five years, with the majority reporting an increased centralisation/consolidation and higher priority of internationalisation, with new positions being created. These results illustrate the centralised structure of comprehensive internationalisation playing out within some institutions in the US.

The EAIE Barometer mapped the state of internationalisation in Europe. The findings show that the suggested consequence of ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’, decentralisation, may not be as prevalent as expected. Respondents reported that main responsibility for institutional international strategy lies mostly with the board/central management (46%) followed by head of international office (18%), other (14%), assigned board member (13%), and internationalisation committee/task force (7%). Half of the respondents (51%) reported that the organisation of internationalisation at their institution was coordinated by a single international office, while the other half of respondents reported what might be considered more decentralised structures: multiple offices with coordination (24%), multiple offices working independently (12%), and decentralised to faculty/department (5%). Although the assumption of ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’ leads us to believe that efforts are more decentralised, in reality there seems to be a variety in the coordination efforts. So, the question is, as ‘mainstreaming’ continues to pervade the European discourse, will we see a move towards more decentralised structures or will ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’ remain a buzzword?

While we continue to hear and use ‘mainstreaming internationalisation’ in everyday conversations, further research and critique of this concept as both discourse and a phenomenon are warranted.

Leasa is Knowledge Development Adviser at the EAIE.


De Wit, H. (2015 January 16). Who owns internationalisation? University World News (350). Retrieved from: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20150113140806307

Hahn, K. & Teichler, U. (2005). Internationalisation mainstreaming in German higher education. In: Arimoto et al (Eds.) Globalization and Higher Education. Hiroshima: University of Hiroshima Research Institute for Higher Education, pp. 39−66.

Hudzik, J. (2012). Emerging Models of Higher Education Internationalization: Concept to Action, Challenge and Opportunity. STINT Foundation Seminar on University Strategies for Internationalization. Stockholm, December.

Hudzik, J. (2011). Comprehensive Internationalization: From concept to action. Washington DC: NAFSA. Retrieved from: https://www.nafsa.org/uploadedFiles/NAFSA_Home/Resource_Library_Assets/Publications_Library/2011_Comprehen_Internationalization.pdf

Kwai, C. &. Deardorff, D. (2011). Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA) A Survey on Senior International Officers: Individual and Institutional Profiles Executive Summary.

Usher, A. (2014 November 26). Who owns internationalisation? Retrieved from: http://higheredstrategy.com/blog/page/17/

  • Markus Laitinen

    In the Finnish context, but I believe also elsewhere, “internationalisation” has been defined unnecessarily narrowly for the last two decades to mean mostly mobility of students and faculty across borders. In some ways the findings of the EAIE Barometer confirm that student mobility still dominates universities’ international strategies and operations.

    I firmly believe that the agenda on higher education internationalisation has broadened and continues to broaden in ways that makes if difficult, if not impossible, to focus on mobility only. And while international offices and officers will still be important and central in promoting internationalisation, we need other internal and external stakeholders to engage internationally. In other words, internationalisation needs to become much more institutional and a shared mission. Whether you call it “mainstreamed”, “comprehensivs”, or my personal favorite “emebedded”, is beside the point. Whether we talk about universities’ teaching, research or service missions, internationalisation should be part and parcel of every aspect of university life.

  • Stefan Jahnke

    Interestingly enough, even though HEIs are still using student mobility as the main driver behind their internationalisation strategies, most HEIs have no strategy in place on how to use the “internationalised” students after they return to the sending institution. This might potentially be a very interesting field of research. The ESNSurvey has some data on it, but no in-depth analysis exists to my knowledge.