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Hans de Wit, Director, CIHE Boston College, USA

We have to look at why we are internationalising and what are the impacts and the outcomes of what we're doing. We are still struggling with that situation in higher education.
March 4 2016
8 Min Read

A distinguished international educator, Hans de Wit is the the new director for Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. He tells The PIE why ‘internationalisation’ is dead and how CIHE’s new master’s programme aims to give much needed training to people working in the field.

The PIE: You’re a thought leader in the field of international education. How did you get started?

HdW: Originally I was an anthropologist and was focused very much on Latin America. I did my study abroad in Peru and did some field work there. I started my career as a Latin American studies anthropologist at the University of Utrecht. At that time Latin America was a bit marginal so there was a lot of capacity building there. Then I saw the international office of Tilburg University had a vacancy as a new director of the international office and they had projects in Peru, Costa Rica and Nicaragua and they needed somebody with a Latin American background. So I applied and got the position. Then I thought, there is more than Latin America. If you are the director of an international office, what about Europe? What about North America? So I started to build up a broader international office.

There wasn’t much about international education then so basically I started from zero. In the early 90’s I was asked by the OECD to advise them on the topic, because they had no idea. I worked, at that time, with Jack Larson, who was the president of AIEA and who had edited the book, Bridges to the Future on international education in the United States. We were supposed to work with the OECD together and then he passed away so I went to Boston College, ironically, on sabbatical to finish the book alone.

“There wasn’t much about international education in the beginning so basically I started from zero”

At that time Philip Altbach started as a professor there as well. After being there for two months we walked into each other and started to chat and found out we were basically working on the same thing. He’s been very instrumental to my career. Then I encountered an article by Jane Knight about the definition of internationalisation, so I approached her and we met when I was in Toronto and we started to work on projects together.

The PIE: It’s quite a nice coincidence that you and Phillip Altbach were at the same institution at the same time. 

HdW: Higher education in general is a small world and international higher education is an even smaller world, so you easily come across people. But then it’s a question of if you have the right connection and do you have the common touch.  I had that with Philip Altbach and I had that especially with Jane Knight. From 1995-2002 we worked a lot together on the whole concept of internationalisation. Everything from the definition, the approaches, the strategy, the whole process, rationales but also the compared aspect of North America, Europe, Asia, Latin America was all developed in that period.

The PIE: So was it Jane Knight who first coined the term ‘internationalisation’?

HdW: That’s a good question. I don’t think so; I think it had been used already before in other disciplines, and people like Maurice Harary in California, had worked a little bit on internationalisation and used the word occasionally. International education was a very concrete term at the time, your education is international, and we said that it has to be on-going. So we started to use the word as a way how to describe the process approach.

“There are universities that are much more active in certain aspects of internationalisation”

The PIE: Tell me about the shift away from using the word ‘internationalisation’.

HdW: When we first used the word it was something new and it had to address the fact that you had to implement a great degree of international dimensions into research and teaching and learning and service.

It had a sort of purpose to use the word and emphasise that it was not something that was naturally there. But we see now everybody uses it like a buzzword, we have to be ‘internationalised’. And that’s why a few years ago we started to write a slightly provocative essay about the end of internationalisation, saying we have to move away from that. We have to look at why we are doing it and what are the impacts and the outcomes of what we’re doing. We are still struggling with that situation in higher education.

The PIE: Do you think there is a country or an institution that doing a better job of putting some substance behind the term?

HdW: I always get this question, people asking for good examples. There are universities that are much more active in certain aspects of internationalisation and some are much more comprehensive than others, but if people say ‘is there an international university or an internationalised university?’, I don’t think so.

That is also why I am critical of the Times Higher Education international rankings. They don’t say anything. What they do is put some indicators together that are quantitative without looking up what is behind them. In general, it is easier for small, specialised institutions like for instance in the arts, which are in general very international in their student body and what they do, to be a good internationalised institutions because they can really focus on that.

But it’s very different for large comprehensive universities to say we are really an internationalised university. I mean take Harvard and Yale etc., are they internationalised universities because they have so many international faculty, so many international students? Yes in those aspects, even of their research you can say so, but on the outcomes and the impact, you can question that.

The PIE: So do you think there is too much focus on student mobility?

HdW: Yes.

“It’s very different for large comprehensive universities to say we are really an internationalised university”

The PIE: What else should institutions be looking at?

HdW: People have to look at what it means for all your students. International students can play a role in that and study abroad can play a role in that but we know that only a small number will benefit from study abroad because of not only funding but also private circumstances, motivation etc.

So that’s why the true definition we use is for all students and for all scholars. That means you have to focus on curriculum and teaching and learning competencies. What does the international dimension mean there? That’s something which presidents are finding too complicated because they really look for numbers.

The institutional level is not really the right approach, they have to support that kind of mentality, but you have to really go to the programme level to look at what it means for my programme. How do I internationalise the knowledge and skills and the attitudes of the students? That’s a whole different ball game.

The PIE: Would you say countries or institutions who are just starting out have an advantage because they see how people have done it before and can change the course?

HdW: They can, but the risk is that they have a tendency to copy, just do the same as others have already done. That’s why the mobility focus is still very strong. At the same time they are in an even less privileged position because they know in the United States, 5% of their students go abroad and 3% of the students are international, that’s very little.

But if you compare it to Latin America for instance, it is 0.1% go abroad and 0.2% are international students and only then from the neighbouring countries. So they need to change internationalisation much more to what it means for their students and not only for the elite ones who come over.  It is the compared advantage that they have, that they have much more need to change.

The PIE: You’ve also said that internships will affect student mobility much more than study abroad in the future.

“Communication is much faster but I think the most important is collaborative online international learning”

HdW: You see that the trend is there and I think you need open doors. We have an article in the upcoming international higher education newsletter, analysing that even in the United States there’s much more focus on internships and service learning than study abroad. We see the same trend in the Erasmus programme, where the increase is through internships not study abroad, because we have seen that the impact of study abroad in itself is good but the impact is even higher if you go into an internship or a community development project because then you are immersed into the society.

When you go to study abroad to another university, you know, you are with other students but the integration with the local students is very marginal. In an internship position you cannot do that. You have to work with the local employees and you have to work with the company. You have to go into societies, you have to learn the language, you have to practise the language.

The PIE: And international internships are much easier to sell to future employers.

HdW: Yes, exactly. The only issue that exists, particularly in the United States, is that most of the study abroad is done at the undergraduate level and an undergraduate internship position is not seen as beneficial by employers outside the US because the education is so general at that level. So internships are more effective at the master’s level than the undergraduate level.

Europe is a little bit different because you are specialised from the start so when you are going into your third year of undergraduate studies you already have some specific knowledge about the area where you are going to have the internship.

The PIE: What role do you expect technology to play in the future of international education?

HdW: It will change internationalisation substantially in many different ways. Communication is much faster, you can reach people much more, but I think the most important is the new international classroom, the virtual international classroom. We use the wrong terms like ‘virtual exchange’, ‘virtual mobility’, but I don’t think it is like that. I think it is much more what people in New York call ‘collaborative online international learning’– students and faculty working together online in joint assignments and also in joint classes, but much more interactively.

“I’ve felt for a very long time that there was the need for a good master’s in international higher education”

The PIE: What are your plans while you’re at the helm of the Centre for International Higher Education?

HdW: I am planning to build on what has been built by Philip Altbach but doing some new things. In September 2016 we will be starting the Master of International Higher Education. I’ve felt for a very long time that there was the need for a good master’s in international higher education.

There are programmes in international education, in the US in particular, but I hear a lot of criticism from people who take those courses because they mainly focus on K-12 and they don’t really compare what is happening in international higher education. Then there are a lot of higher education programmes at the masters level but they focus very much on American higher education.

So we bring those two elements together and we combine the blended dimension. We have on-site courses and online courses. You have field experience, which has to be international not in the sense that you necessarily have to go abroad, but it has to be an organisation that focuses on international higher education.

You can combine it with online courses, which are not only online for students, but we also bring in faculty from Africa, Asia and Latin America. We think we can bring something new to the field and help people who are working in all those kinds of international activities in higher education because there are more and more of them. We want to give them a good training option because now in general they are not trained at all.

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