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Francisco Marmolejo, Tertiary Education Specialist, The World Bank

Francisco Marmolejo has been senior tertiary education specialist at The World Bank since 2012. Now based in New Delhi, he directs the Bank’s analytical policy work and its team of HE experts. The PIE caught up with him to discuss the common misconceptions on internationalisation – and whether the sector is still elitist.


"The assumption that by achieving that international enrolment rate, institutions magically become world-class universities is a significant myth"

The PIE News: You recently said we’re missing the point on internationalisation. Why so?

Francisco Marmolejo: I think we are, unfortunately. In the field of international higher education, in which I have been involved for the last 25 years, it looks like we keep repeating our own truth and understanding of the world, we kind of ‘reinforce ourselves,’ but I think we need to challenge many traditional assumptions we have about international education.

“We are missing the point by not making internationalisation central to the concerns of society”

I had a significant wake-up call six years ago when I joined the World Bank. We conduct a survey for governments to understand what their priorities for higher education are. And to my surprise, internationalisation is very low in the list of priorities of policymakers.

Many times when government officers mention internationalisation of higher education, they just connect it either to the mobility of students or to the signing of massive MoUs – or as a way to position higher in world rankings. And that’s the way they see internationalisation. And even in that narrow view, it’s still low on the priorities.

What is high, are concerns about employability, adequate diversification and articulation of higher education systems, quality, governance and funding of HEIs. That’s how I think we are missing the point: by not making internationalisation more central to the concerns that governments and society have on higher education, by not making the case that internationalisation is not a goal by itself but a means towards a more relevant higher education.

The PIE: You also mentioned some common misconceptions about internationalisation – which one is the most dangerous?

FM: All misconceptions work together, in the same game. In many cases, countries become compelled to attract more international students – that’s the case for India, for example. Among other reasons, it’s because they realise their institutions are not on the global league of rankings and that one of the components of being a global world-class university is to be able to attract international talent.

The pressure of positioning well on global rankings has gone beyond the limit, I think. The assumption that by achieving that international enrolment rate, institutions magically become world-class universities, is a significant myth. And a second one, of course, is to see internationalisation just as a way to substitute the diminishing of traditional streams of funding for higher education by attracting more international students – who are going to pay higher fees.

When that happens, when the incentive for internationalisation is mainly financial, sooner or later you will have a distortion into the goal of what internationalisation should be about. Last but not least, internationalisation tends to benefit just a few. It is not only the 2 or 3% of the students that should be the goal of internationalisation, it should be to involve in some way or another all students, so that’s why we need to go beyond these tropes: that internationalisation is just about mobility, that it’s a source of money or that it is a source of prestige.

“I joke that location becomes an accident for institutions focused on international”

The PIE: Is international education elitist?

FM: It is. If only 2-3% of students benefit from an international education experience, indeed it shows elitism. Sadly, higher education is elitist by its nature. As of today, global higher education student enrolment represents only 2.5% of the world population. And many of the disparities in equitable access to higher education are reflected on internationalisation.

There is a lot of evidence showing that in many countries access to higher education continues being reserved for the most privileged of society. That becomes translated into the internationalisation dimension because the ones who benefit from most of those internationalisation activities are the ones whose socio-economic family background provided them with greater opportunities, such as capacity to finance their international experience, access to second language training, or just enrolling in institutions that are more internationalised, which usually are those institutions that more equipped with resources.

In other words, internationalisation is being conducted in most cases today on an elite sector of higher education institutions globally.

That’s why talking about internationalisation as a tool towards a more relevant curriculum that applies to all students in our higher education institutions is the best way to democratise internationalisation to a larger segment of higher education institutions.

The PIE: How is internationalisation perceived in local communities? Are its role and its benefits clear?

“The local context can be more intercultural than a homogenous society abroad”

FM: I always insist that internationalisation makes sense if it’s relevant in the local context. Unfortunately, in most of the cases, it’s exactly the opposite. In fact, sometimes it looks like the more internationalised the institution is, the more detached it is from the local priorities. I sometimes joke that location becomes an accident for many of those institutions aimed at becoming highly internationalised.

Also, policies and procedures tend to reinforce some disturbing patterns. Look at the academic reward system prevalent in our higher education institutions. In many cases, academics are supposed to be writing papers, attending international conferences, or chasing internationally competitive grants, but no recognition or incentive is provided for working on programs aimed at benefiting the local community.

Another incomplete assumption is that in order to acquire a strong multicultural awareness, the only way to do so is for students to go abroad. But many times, in the local context there are much more intercultural learning opportunities than if you go to a very homogenous society abroad. I am not trying to diminish one in favour of the other.

We need to achieve a harmonious combination of both. Most higher education institutions need to be more responsive to the needs of the local community, and most of what they do is not research, but teaching, that is preparing people for society and life. That’s why it’s important to combine both aspects more adequately.

The PIE: What big trends do you see shaping the sector for the next 10 years?

FM: First of all, a significant growth in higher education globally. It’s what I refer to as a ‘fertile land’ for more and better higher education. But despite massive growth, still there are significant disparities in access to higher education.

Not only between countries, but also within countries: there are a number of groups that still don’t have optimal access to higher education, such as rural communities, indigenous people, refugees, and women. In parallel, pressures towards more relevance of the academic experience will be increasingly visible, challenging the traditional “business model” of higher education institutions.

In terms of international education specifically, as growth in higher education will happen, significant growth in student mobility will, too. But I see with a lot of hope that more people are embracing the idea of ‘internationalisation at home’ and other related approaches that decouple internationalisation from mobility and spread out its benefits to the wider community.

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