Accountability in internationalisation: it must be personal
In 2011, two of us, Uwe Brandenburg and Hans de Wit, published an essay in International Higher Education with the provocative title “The end of internationalization”. We argued that internationalisation of higher education had moved from the fringe of institutional interest to the very core, but that, while gaining moral weight, its content seemed to have deteriorated.
We observed an increasing commercialisation under the flag of internationalisation, and in our view this attitude has exacerbated the devaluation of internationalisation and the inflation of defensive measures. In our view, “gradually, the ‘why and wherefore’ had been taken over by the way internationalisation has become the main objective: more exchange, more degree mobility, and more recruitment”.
We pleaded that we have to understand internationalisation and globalisation in their pure meanings – not as goals in themselves but rather as means to an end – and to throw off the veil of ignorance and ask ourselves: why do we do certain things, and how do they help in achieving the goal of quality of education and research in a globalised knowledge society?
We stated that we have to regard mobility and other activities as what they really are: activities or instruments – and therefore by definition not goals in themselves. And we concluded that “the most important in any case is to rethink and redefine the way we look at the internationalisation of higher education in the present time”.
Is there an afterlife?
The essay felt like a wake-up call which resonated broadly at that time, but where do we stand now, 12 years further down the road, and has the end of internationalisation come closer or have we rolled back the tide?
On the occasion of the European Association for International Education (EAIE) conference in autumn 2023 in Rotterdam, we organised a session together with our Chilean co-author Paulina Latorre with the title “10 years after the end of internationalisation, is there an afterlife?” to discuss these questions.
Looking back 12 years, the picture is not positive. For many, internationalisation is a process that is just copied from Northern institutions and does not make real sense to their contextual realities or resonate with their institutional priorities. Education abroad in all its forms is still driving the agenda more than internationalisation at home.
The increasing focus on international rankings is the rule and favours some over others. The divide between the North and the South and between those universities classified as top world-class universities and the ‘others’ persists.
Internationalisation has become more synonymous with competition and marketisation than with its traditional values (cooperation, exchange and service to society). Inequality and exclusiveness have increased nationally and internationally, in part due to elitist approaches to internationalisation.
Recognition of the importance of addressing all aspects of education in an integrated way in progressive university policy and strategy is only slowly and unevenly increasing.
Although there are counterexamples to this dark picture in the form of internationalisation of the curriculum at home, virtual exchange and collaborative online international learning (COIL), internationalisation for society and movements of decolonisation and action on climate change in international education (such as CANIE), the move towards a more socially responsible internationalisation is, at the institutional level, more about rhetoric and is often limited to some good intentions and isolated practices.
The 2015 definition of internationalisation, with an emphasis on equity, inclusion and meaningful contribution to society, as well as labels such as ethical, humanistic and responsible internationalisation, illustrates the feeling among international educators that a radical shift from competition and marketisation is needed, and we saw good intentions and initiatives, for instance, during the EAIE conference in Rotterdam.
At the same time, the observation in the 2011 article about the commercial dimensions of its exhibits and those of sister organisations like NAFSA Association of International Educators is still valid. Are we really practising what we preach (in other words, is internationalisation as we perceive it still alive), or is it indeed coming to an end?
This question is even more urgent now than 12 years ago. We are not facing one crisis (neoliberal marketisation) but multiple crises at the same time: COVID-19 and the threat of new pandemics, anti-international nationalist movements, attacks on democracy, racism, digitalisation and artificial intelligence, geopolitical tensions, increased inequality and exclusion and climate change, to name just a few.
They demand more than nice words and declarations. They demand an internationalisation that focuses on action by university leaders, international educators, teachers, scholars and students to make internationalisation socially responsible and respectful of diversity in all its forms.
If we do not act, the end of internationalisation is closer than ever, particularly in the Global North where, after the pandemic, the return to the old normal of marketisation seems prevalent, while in the Global South there is more awareness of the negative consequences of such an approach and the consequences of exclusion and inequality are felt the most keenly.
“The Global South is coming” was said with pride by the participants from Latin America in the EAIE session. The question now is: why did nothing really change and what needs to happen so that we finally see internationalisation taking the responsibility that is required?
In our view, while internationalisation 1.0 was defined by more or less unstructured mobilities for a few with mainly personal gains (up to the early 1990s), since then, internationalisation 2.0 has been mainly concerned with institutional internationalisation.
On one hand, this institutionalisation of internationalisation has led to good movements such as the structured Erasmus programme, comprehensive internationalisation, sustainable campus projects and universities based on sustainable development goals.
However, it has also meant that all the responsibility and accountability for internationalisation was put on institutions rather than individuals, and as we have seen institutions in general are extremely slow when it comes to change and social responsibility.
This has allowed us, individuals, to separate ourselves from the crises, the consequences and the responsibilities, claiming that it is the institution that is responsible and needs to change. We are exculpated as individuals when we needlessly travel to conferences by airplane or don’t get involved in the refugee crises or in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Accountability in internationalisation has been at best institutional but never personal.
The end or the beginning?
At the EAIE conference, we dared to declare the end of our dependence on institutional internationalisation and advocated the need for an active, personalised internationalisation with an emphasis on our own social responsibility and inclusion.
This means: we all need to identify the goal or crisis that personally matters for us most. We cannot solve everything, so we need to prioritise. This may mean focusing on climate change, inclusion, the North-South gap or any other major issue.
We then need to shape internationalisation in our work in a way that can help address the issue and take personal responsibility for it. In this way, the end of one internationalisation may well define the beginning of a new internationalisation.
Paulina Latorre is a PhD student at the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Milan, Italy, and an internationalisation practitioner at a Chilean university. E-mail: [email protected]. Uwe Brandenburg is managing director of the Global Impact Institute, Czech Republic, and visiting professor at the ESCP Business School, France. E-mail: [email protected]. Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States, and senior fellow at the International Association of Universities. E-mail: [email protected]. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.