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Guest article by Eva Egron-Polak, Secretary General, International Association of Universities

Internationalisation of higher education institutions: why, how and how well?

There is currently an omnipresent preoccupation with assessment and evaluation of higher education internationalisation.  This is a positive trend.  It attests to the interest in internationalisation at the level of policy makers as well as amongst institutional leadership and other stakeholders.  Second, it shines a spotlight on the ways and means that are being used to increase or strengthen the international dimensions of higher education and research.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, this trend fosters a critical analysis of what it means to internationalise teaching, learning, research and the overall higher education experience.  It also keeps alive the debate about why, how and how well different higher education institutions around the world pursue internationalisation.

Quite certainly, specialists in quality assurance and/or evaluation would take me to task for not drawing precise and clear distinctions between the myriad terms used to describe the practice in which we endeavour to make sense of our internationalisation efforts.  Indeed, each specific term—evaluation, assessment, review, audit, etc—depicts a process that may have a slightly different purpose and methodology. Ultimately, however, the aim is to know whether or not the internationalisation goals are being achieved; and if we fall short of that, why this is the case, and what is required to redress the situation.

Evaluation/assessment/auditing is part of institutional development and learning, and thus absolutely essential in higher education institutions.  When we apply these processes to internationalisation, however, the key is to ensure that the goals or objectives of internationalisation also become subjects of the assessment process.  It is not sufficient to undertake a ‘fitness for purpose’ evaluation of internationalisation; it is necessary to also assess the ‘fitness of the purpose’, both for the institution itself and for any international partners involved.

The International Association Universities’ (IAU) experience with institutional reviews of internationalisation is not long-standing or vast, yet.  IAU only recently developed and launched its Internationalization Strategies Advisory Service (ISAS). Our work in this area is, nevertheless, highly diverse since the ISAS projects to date have taken place in three different world regions.  And, despite the vastly dissimilar contextual realities in each university, each ISAS project still confirmed that the dominant understanding of internationalisation of higher education remains relatively narrow or only partial. Consequently, internationalisation tends to be implemented in a limited manner. And when institutions embark on an assessment, they are likely to focus on just a few, basic aspects, using a limited set of (usually quantitative) indicators, such as the number of international students on campus, the number of exchange partnerships, the teaching of foreign languages and the hosting of visitors from abroad.  Despite the clear importance of these indicators of internationalisation, are they really a mark that the goals of internationalisation have been achieved?  How much do they tell us about the impact of these actions on the learning that takes place?  How well can the academic community reply to the ‘why’ questions that can be raised about these actions, particularly when they require institutional investment?

Perhaps the most important value of the ISAS service lies less in the obvious results (such as the report and the data collected) and more in the process, whereby, for example, institutional committees learn what is actually going on in their university; groups form to discuss why certain internationalisation priorities and projects have or are being developed; and mutual learning takes place about what has been successful and what is failing.  Stimulating such on-going analysis of the ‘why, how and how well’ of the internationalisation strategy in turn leads to a much larger number of stakeholders with an improved understanding and commitment to internationalisation as an institutional policy in which they have a role, a stake and a responsibility.

Scholars, policy makers and practitioners agree that internationalisation of higher education is a complex and multi-facetted process which ideally permeates all aspects of the higher education enterprise.  If audits, evaluations and projects such as IAU’s ISAS and others can mobilise more institutional actors to focus on the fundamental academic reasons for internationalisation—and the impact it can and should have on the quality of learning, research and outreach—then they are valuable instruments to promote innovation and improvement, not simply labels that are pursued for prestige purposes.