Why is Internationalisation Needed? | Student Reviews & University Rankings EDUopinions

Why is Internationalisation Needed?


‘Internationalisation’ is, literally, to make something ‘international.’ College campuses can be some of the most diverse places in the world when it comes to what the students look like, think like, and where they are from, however, different groups of nationalities can often find themselves separated due to many reasons. Why is it important that these international boundaries be dissolved? Read on to let EDUopinions tell you why.

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I always wondered why programmes for internationalisation are needed. Doesn’t this just happen naturally? However, when I think about it, I am living in a bubble of digital nomads and expats, having known nothing else than accidental, self-driven internationalisation.

When I started studying, it was clear to me that I wanted to go to a place that offers an education I like – the country was secondary. Fortunately, universities across Europe had just finished implementing a huge change mandated by the European Commission: The Bologna Process. I was part of the first batch of students at my university who graduated with a bachelor; a diploma with which I could go and continue my studies at any other university.


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Top-Down Driven Internationalisation

Internationalisation was always a part of my university – Maastricht University. Currently, 51% of its student population is non-Dutch (8,599 students), however, the international projects felt haphazard, like it was an afterthought an administrator had. For example, all new bachelor and master students are invited to attend a week of activities to introduce them to student and academic life. Not speaking the native language, I opted to be part of an ‘international group’. Each group was led by senior students who were all members of various student associations but the students were not aware of the university’s desire for internationalisation, and the mixing of students was not carried out. The assumptions for many native students was clear: foreign students have to integrate with local students.

These formal policies of internationalisation continue at various universities. Many universities have international classroom projects, which are formal projects in which the academic staff are tasked to teach a group of students coming from various cultures and countries. The idea is simple: if students learn together in the classroom, they will learn that individuals from other cultures are not just different, but they add new perspectives to and extend one’s mental model of the world. This might create challenges, such as when cultural differences about punctuality or deadlines collide. However, the idea is that the classroom provides a safe environment for students to learn these differences.

While there is value in international classrooms, the efforts of internationalisation remain limited to formal educational settings. However, many students meet outside the formal learning environment to study together. Of course, group work where instructors purposefully create culturally diverse groups extends the formal international classroom environment into an informal learning setting, however, the learning activity remains initiated by the academic staff.

True internationalisation occurs when students out of their own initiative form study groups and associate with people of other nationalities. This requires students to be able to communicate with each other and brings us to the problem of language. While fluent language skills make it easier to communicate, if students do not have the opportunity to learn each other’s language, internationalisation will remain an artificial, top-down initiative.



Language as a Vehicle of (Inter)nationalisation

The policy around language is an important part of the internationalisation effort. At my local university, there was a clear mismatch about how administrators perceived language use and how the local student body perceived it. For example, to date, after several attempts by student members of the executive board, not all faculties offer free Dutch courses – the national language – to international students. This is done differently at other institutions. For example, The University of Lleida in Catalonia makes it clear to international students that the Catalan language is a symbol of identity and the default language. While this might sound like a strategy to push foreign students away, 11% of its students are foreigners (1,406). It also participates in European mobility projects (e.g. Erasmus) and has four double degree programmes. Other universities, such as the University of Basque Country, favour bilingualism, while again, universities such as Cardiff University adopt a foreign language – English in this case – as the default language. The effect of these strategies is that 23% of Cardiff University students are foreign, and the University of Basque Country participates in many international programmes and regularly sends staff to foreign countries for research and teaching activities.

A common situation is that in many smaller countries (e.g. The Netherlands or Wales) or in countries with less popular languages (e.g. Finnish, Danish), universities adopt as the default language English. However, there might be exemptions for educational programmes which prepare students for work that can only be carried out in one country (e.g. national tax law). The result of adopting a foreign default language is that the university is open to students from all different nationalities, assuming that they pass the admission requirements.


Unexpected Nationalisation

In The Netherlands a storm is brewing about internationalisation. The Beter Onderwijs Nederland association (Better Education Netherlands) is continuing its action against internationalisation, questioning its value and raising the point that in many cases English as an instructional language is not necessary and even damaging. In the Dutch Lower House of Parliament, the issue will be discussed this summer.

While the points raised by the Beter Onderwijs Nederland association might have some truth to them, it is also important to consider the value of educational programmes taught in English for regional integration. Universities which are located close to national borders benefit from offering their educational programmes in English. The community in which the university is placed is used to people crossing their border for short holidays or shopping trips, therefore, it is only logical to offer degrees that are accessible to student populations from both sides of the border.


What is Needed for Successful Internationalisation?

If the aim of international programmes is to increase the diversity of the student population in terms of nationality, recruitment campaigns in different countries will help, but diversity does not equate to inclusion, and this is the bigger problem. The analogy is this; “diversity is being invited to the dance, inclusion is being invited to dance”. The goal of international classroom projects is to be a way for students to learn intercultural skills, but to create successful international universities in which all students feel included requires universities to provide structure and opportunities for students to interact outside of formal settings. This means housing, language courses, and maybe even a large room to celebrate in together, creating common theatre pieces and listening to folk songs. Once this is in place, the voices asking for a return towards nationalisation are tempered.

On a personal note, I am keeping up my personal journey of internationalisation, which began many years ago by a seed my parents planted. I am moving again to a country that is not my own.


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Written by
Katerina Bohle Carbonell, Ph.D, writes on topics related to higher education and people management in companies in high ranking international journals and on her personal webpage. She obtained her Ph.D in organizational behavior at Maastricht University. She currently teaches at Northwestern University’s and works on products and services to increase the use of data-driven decision making at Maastricht University.

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