“We have engaged in a serious omission,” John Hudzik of Michigan State University told an audience of higher education professionals at the Going Global conference this week in London.
“We have paid insufficient attention to documenting the outcomes of internationalisation in terms that are relevant to politicians and the public.”
Answering the question “Is internationalisation dead in a ‘post-truth’ age?”, Hudzik and other prominent leaders in the sector were reflecting on how universities should communicate their mission in the current political climate.
“Globalisation should not be seen as a process to exclude people and countries”
Those in higher education leadership are often guilty of dismissing the public’s concerns about globalisation and immigration, rather than addressing them and demonstrating the benefits of international engagement in a local context, the panellists argued.
“Globalisation should not be seen as a process to exclude people and countries,” commented Ka-Ho Mok, vice president of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, but the panellists acknowledged that it is often seen that way.
To counter this, “We need to publicly engage like we never have before, demonstrate rather than just explain the role internationalisation plays in the local context,” urged Janet Beer, vice chancellor of the UK’s University of Liverpool.
“Unless we create an understanding that we exist for public benefit, then everything we do is at nought. We are here for public benefit, we are here for good.”
But too often, Hudzik admonished, “We talk mainly to ourselves, in rooms like this, comfortably in an echo chamber, and we ignore how globalisation has spawned real concerns for people elsewhere… and we dismiss them as surely uninformed or worse.”
In the UK, last year’s Brexit referendum, in which universities campaigned vocally to remain in the EU, showed that the attitudes in the higher education sector are often out of step with a large proportion of the public. This is one example where the sector has been seen as elitist and self-interested, panellists noted.
Universities must also be culturally sensitive in articulating their goals, counselled Nico Jooste, director of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa.
“In the developing world, the word ‘internationalisation’ is not a favourite word,” he said. “They’d rather talk about linkages than internationalisation,” he explained, as the latter is often associated with imbalanced relationships between international partners.
And simply changing the way universities communicate isn’t enough, he said – they should also examine their approach to internationalisation itself.
“Our practices are defeating ourselves in bringing a better message,” he challenged.
“We are calling things internationalisation that are not internationalisation. We sugar coat our commercial drives by calling them internationalisation and by doing that we might just kill internationalisation.”
Rather than seeing international engagement through the lens of student recruitment as a revenue-generating exercise, institutions should be investing in meaningful collaboration, he argued.
“I don’t think universities are prepared to put enough money into internationalisation,” he said. But when a large proportion of international student mobility accounts for students from the developing world coming to study in developed countries, “just imagine what it would do to the world if you took 30% of those fees to develop linkages with institutions in those countries”.
Mok echoed that “internationalisation should not just mean student mobility”.
“Universities should think about creating an international context on campus to help students appreciate we are living in a world of diversity,” he said.