Defining internationalisation in HE for society

In our recent article in University World News we argued that 'Internationalisation of Higher Education for Society' (IHES) should become a central part of university agendas over the next decade. 

We described IHES as the social responsibility component of internationalisation and argued that it “has, to date, rarely been the focus of systemic thinking, conceptualisation or strategy in the broad agenda of the internationalisation of higher education”. 

Yet we believe it offers wide-ranging possibilities to drive “comprehensive internationalisation” beyond the boundaries of our campuses and has the potential to mutually benefit all stakeholders.

Engaging with the wider society in support of the greater good has long been an important focus for institutions, and can involve students, staff and faculty in a range of initiatives to fulfil the so-called ‘third mission’ of universities, that is, their contribution to society at large. 

However, there is relatively little evidence of this involving the international aspects of a university’s work, with institutional internationalisation strategies failing to address it in a systematic way.

While clearly there are examples of activities that fit within the description of the general concept of IHES we provided in our last article, we believe that a concise description that encapsulates the distinct characteristics of IHES will be useful in collecting examples of current practice and guiding systemic thinking and strategy in universities. 

We propose the following description: ‘Internationalisation of Higher Education for Society (IHES) explicitly aims to benefit the wider community, at home or abroad, through international or intercultural education, research, service and engagement’.

We arrive at this using the following logic. 

The most recent definition of internationalisation of higher education emphasises intentionality and making a meaningful contribution to society: “The intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society [authors’ emphasis].” (De Wit et al, 2015).

Social engagement is also defined as a process that includes community members in joint activities for mutual benefit.

“[…]A process whereby universities engage with community stakeholders to undertake joint activities that can be mutually beneficial, even if each side benefits in a different way." (Benneworth et al, 2018).

Core characteristics

On the basis of the above definitions of internationalisation of higher education and social engagement, the core characteristics of IHES are as follows.

First, IHES activities will intentionally and purposefully seek to provide benefit to the wider community. Activities will be carefully planned and evaluated and their impact on society will be visible in some way. 

An example of this is discussed in the De Wit et al 2017 book, The Globalisation of Internationalisation. A group of rural women entrepreneurs participated in internationalisation projects led by Viña del Mar University in the Valparaiso Region of Chile. 

The project shows clearly how universities can use their international resources to strengthen social inclusion processes locally, offering mutual benefits and learning for all stakeholders.

Second, IHES will involve the wider community at home or abroad. It may bring the global to the local, or the local to the global, both being equally valuable. 

Examples of this include a service learning programme involving speech pathology students from La Trobe University in Melbourne, who undertake international clinical placements, conducting assessments and therapeutic interventions in regional Cambodia, and a partnership between the nursing school of the same university whose staff work with Lifepartners Healthcare Indonesia offering continuing professional development programmes to Indonesian nursing staff and participating in collaborative research. 

In these programmes benefits accrue to patients and their families, the wider community in Cambodia and Indonesia, as well as to the university’s staff and students through their experiences.

Third, IHES might occur in any of the areas in which a higher education institution is active: education, research and third mission. 

For example, IHES activities might involve teaching (for example, lectures to the public); learning (for example, service learning abroad); research (for example, the FameLab programme of the British Council); service (for instance, international IT staff supporting local NGOs); or third mission (for instance, supporting the establishment of a technology initiative to improve education for migrants in local communities).

IHES activities might include: 

• Individual activities of institutes, departments or individuals within a higher education institution, such as the speech pathology example above; or the physiotherapy programme at Leeds Beckett University that offered students the opportunity to work in a spinal rehabilitation clinic in Nepal.

• A suite of activities that are integrated into an institution’s internationalisation strategy, for example, EARTH University in Costa Rica.

• Activities supported by national bodies and policies, such as programmes which support the integration of refugees in, for example, Germany, the United States and Canada. Another example is the Europa macht Schule initiative of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), which brings international European exchange students into local classrooms in Germany, introducing pupils to the home country in a structured and supervised project.

From the university’s side, IHES might involve academics, administrators, students or combinations of all three groups.

IHES might focus on bringing the community into the higher education institution, for example, in the case of Kiron University which was established to educate refugee students, as well as several other initiatives around the world helping refugees with access to higher education; or by bringing the university into society, such as through lectures by international scholars in public places.

IHES might be focused on widening the perspective of citizens or on supporting the economic development of the region, such as, for example, the Welcome Centre for International Workforce in Göttingen, Germany, which helps companies in the region to attract and retain an international workforce by providing full integration and support services.

Building on good practice

All these and many more facets already exist or are possible. Our goal is to build on current good practice by collating examples from around the world of IHES activities and existing research in the area of IHES.

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