Has internationalising higher education worked?

Whether growth is still an appropriate measure of success for internationalisation was the question underpinning a panel debate at The Festival of Higher Education

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Mary Stiasny, pro vice chancellor for international, learning and teaching at University of London, framed the initial discussion with the point that no-one could deny that UK universities have very successfully grown their internationalisation activities – but can we say that internationalisation of the sector has worked?

A report a couple of weeks back for the International Higher Education Commission sought to get the issues of “internationalisation at home” and the international aspect of home students’ university experience back on the policy radar – in doing so it highlighted quite how far this agenda has fallen from prominence at the macro level.

Universities typically do a good job of including a broad range of success metrics within their internationalisation strategies – but in a funding system where international recruitment has become almost the only aspect of higher education that is not loss-making, student numbers have become by far the most pressing target for internationalisation.

(On that note, institution-level HESA data that the Financial Times got hold of this week laid stark the awarding gap between international and home students, with some institutions having large disparities in degree classifications – and this was for undergraduate degrees, where recruitment at the sector-level has not had the same boom.)

The debates around internationalisation have to a large extent been boiled down to international recruitment and research security, an Overton window that misses out a lot of what should be argued about – both in the positives of cultural exchange and curriculum broadening, and in negatives such as attainment, or the environmental impact of international study.

In the discussion, UUKi director Jamie Arrowsmith swung the spotlight onto the reciprocal benefits of internationalisation, and fellow panellists Joanna Newman (SOAS provost) and Bobby Mehta (PVC Global Engagement at University of Portsmouth) had plenty of both anecdotal and systematic evidence of how equity and exchange can be made to work well, with the Association of Commonwealth Universities Equitable Research Partnerships toolkit getting some deserved recognition.

At the national level, though, it feels increasingly tricky to make the case to policymakers that the reciprocal benefits of internationalisation should form part of the UK’s target-setting in education, trade, immigration, and science.

The flipside of successfully making the case for internationalisation of higher education as a strategic national asset is that governments will increasingly look to utilise that asset.

It’s well rehearsed how this plays out for the sector in the case of both the UK government and those countries designated as hostile, autocratic, or otherwise not aligned with the UK’s interests or values. What perhaps isn’t quite so much on the radar is how this manifests with other “friendly” regimes, as the European University Association’s director for policy coordination and foresight Thomas Jørgensen made clear in an earlier session at the Festival.

There’s no real incentive left, the audience heard, for EU countries to seek to subsidise or incentivise their home students to pursue a university education in the UK – and on research the next version of Horizon Europe could either have EU policy priorities hard-wired into it in ways that make big UK investments once again problematic, or else large slices of European research funding could be incorporated into health or defence pots that the UK would be unable to associate to.

In a multipolar world with each state actor seeking tight budgetary control and value for money, both reciprocal cultural exchange and disinterested scientific research are at risk of getting squeezed, hard.

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