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How Do You Define Internationalization?

The following is a guest post by Hilary Layton, director of internationalization at the University of York, in England.
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The U. of York’s Heslington Hall

Three years ago I had doubts about using the word “internationalization” in my formal job title. I wasn’t sure that the word was being used commonly enough. Now, of course, the word appears everywhere in higher education—and directors and vice presidents of internationalization are popping up at universities all over the world.

How we go about internationalizing higher education, however, is a question that draws some interesting distinctions, notwithstanding our shared vocabulary. In conversation with colleagues from the United States, China, Australia, and other European countries, I find many common ideas. But I’m also conscious of some significant differences between nations.

In many European countries, where university tends to be publicly financed and some degrees take a long time to complete because there is far less pressure to finish them, the strongest international facets seem to be synchronizing countries’ university-degree systems and internationalizing the curriculum. In Asia, the focus is strongly on bringing in foreign students and sending Chinese students overseas, and the recruitment of foreign faculty. In the United States, I am struck that universities are so focused on study abroad (not usually in the form of an exchange with another country) and the establishment of high-profile branch campuses. Meanwhile, in Britain, our international focus for a long time centered on the recruitment of overseas students and is now increasingly turning to business and research links.

At York, a modern university in an old city in the north of England, we had a solid history of strong international-student recruitment and a number of research partnerships when I took over its internationalization efforts. We had also made a decision not to pursue satellite or branch campuses overseas. How then were we to make internationalization work, make it an important part of the institution, get ourselves noticed, and remain authentic to our educational mission?

We decided on focused projects that aren’t splashy but would have long-lasting benefits. Not for us was the huge investment of a big-name campus partnership in another country.

First, we looked at our academic endeavors. This was promising—we have a comprehensive range of successful research departments, all of which are internationally active. We started providing funds for new research alliances, encouraged participation in the Worldwide Universities Network (through which we’ve begun a series of successful collaborations), and invested in our study-abroad office to increase the number of students who had international experiences. My staff also sat down with every academic-department head and asked, “What does internationalization mean for your department?” That led to some great academic subject-based strategies.

The medical school is building teaching partnerships and opportunities for elective courses with Indian institutions; history of art has a strong connection with Peking University, which we have broadened to include student and faculty exchange in the arts and humanities generally. Meanwhile, health sciences and biosciences are working with a number of universities in Brazil.

Then we looked at business, engagement, and reputation, and began a joint approach to international activity with our business-development teams and alumni-relations staff.  International media coverage can be a big nut to crack, but we’re taking advantage of a large English-speaking media in many countries to pitch ideas to. We’re also increasingly focusing our activity in certain regions on a small number of priority countries so our marketing efforts have more impact.

Our final tranche of projects came with “embedding” internationalization across the university. I believe that every student and staff member can contribute to the internationalization of an institution. We have talked with the finance and human-resources teams about how they can adapt to an increasingly global environment. We have run cultural-awareness courses for front-line cafe staff and porters. And our executive chef and his deputy spent two weeks in Chinese universities learning about how their counterparts provide food for a hungry university community.

We have a long way to go in some areas. Internationalizing the curriculum is a topic of great interest to us, but we’ve made little progress. Our students’ engagement in study abroad is relatively low, and there’s a long way to go to reach our 20-percent participation goal. We need to put more effort into bringing British and non-British students together. And the big benefits to our reputation abroad have been hard to come by when a university isn’t doing eye-catching international projects. But this approach is right for us.

[GNU Free Documentation licensed Wikimedia image by Arian Kriesch]

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