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Two Tales of Internationalization: Which One Is True?

The Global Higher Education Forum was held in Penang, Malaysia, last month.

Last December, I had the opportunity to participate in two different overseas meetings on higher-education internationalization within the same week. Since the themes of the conferences were similar, one might imagine that they would generate discussions that were similar. I was quite surprised that these events–held 6,300 miles apart from each other–in Penang, Malaysia, and in Lund, Sweden, seemed to be as distant on the rationale and focus for internationalization as they were geographically. In their own way, both events reflected the important dilemma that higher education faces in today’s world: how to serve the current and future needs of our societies in an increasingly competitive and internationalized knowledge-based economy.

The first of the two events that I attended was the Global Higher Education Forum, hosted on December 12-13 by the University of Sciences of Malaysia (USM), and co-convened by a variety of international organizations including the Association of African Universities (AAU), the International Association of Universities (IAU), and the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC), among others. At this conference, more than 400 delegates, overwhelmingly from developing countries, debated future scenarios for higher education in the world as well as threats and opportunities associated with them. Speakers emphasized the need to embed a socially-responsible approach when establishing national policies for higher education and when internationalization strategies are implemented at the institutional level. It was recognized that global growth in higher-education enrollment over the next 30 years will happen mostly in the developing world, that access to higher education continues to be highly selective, that participation in international mobility mostly benefits more well-off students, and that national policies in developed countries aimed at attracting and retaining talent from abroad are harmful to countries with emerging economies.

At the core of the discussions in Malaysia was the question of whether it is possible for higher-education institutions to help create a world with more justice, equality, intercultural understanding, and tolerance, while operating in a highly competitive environment with limited resources, increased accountability, and rankings.

Just two days later, attendees of the Conference on Strategic Management of Internationalization in Higher Education were convened at Lund University by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and its higher-education program (IMHE) in collaboration with the Nordic Association of University Administrators (NUAS) with the attempt to address a similar question–the ways in which the role of internationalization in higher education has been shifting in recent years and how institutions are coping with it.

Participants, mostly from European and other OECD market-based economies, largely agreed that higher education has not been immune to globalization, and, in fact, the internationalization agenda has moved from the margins of higher-education policy to a more central role and has become a topic of great interest not only to institutions but also to government policymakers.

In many OECD countries, internationalization of higher education has become an important component of national trade policies. It generates significant resources to institutions and local economies, it helps fill graduate programs and laboratories that otherwise might be languishing, it attracts talented individuals from many parts of the world, and it serves as key strategy for so-called soft diplomacy.

Although the rationale heard in Lund was different to the one being discussed in Penang, it was intriguing to hear speakers warn about the dangers of seeing international higher education as just another commodity, or about the risks associated with linking internationalization of higher education just to prestige and rankings. Some speakers very vocally insisted that higher-education institutions should be a voice for social justice and should not benefit only the elite.

After reflecting on the rationales for internationalization that prevailed at the two events, there seems to exist a split in approaches and expectations in the developing and the developed world in matters related to the goals and means of internationalization of higher education. Nevertheless, the need to find common ground is crucial. At the end of the day, the key challenge faced by higher-education leaders and practitioners in both the developing and the developed world is how to reconcile both perspectives in such a way that future graduates of our institutions will have both the knowledge base and the cultural and linguistic skills that are required in today’s competitive world, as well as a strong sense of social responsibility and commitment towards social justice globally and locally.

Certainly, there is no simple recipe to resolve these apparently competing positions, but comprehensive internationalization strategies like the ones described by John Hudzik at Nafsa have been successfully implemented in a variety of institutions and many valuable lessons can be learned from these cases.

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