Internationalization in Higher Education for Society

Posted on April 24, 2019


Xenophobia, radicalisation, anti-intellectualism, hate speech, populism, globalisation of the labour market, environmental change, global warming… These are only some of the major issues facing societies today. Related topics are the rise of the ultra-right, the Brexit crisis, the retreat to nationalism and trade wars, continued inequalities worldwide, and floods, droughts and other impacts of climate change.

All are of both social and academic concern and are vigorously debated across digital, social and traditional print media as well as in academic literature and in universities around the world. This is not surprising given their real and potential economic and social impact.

Meanwhile contemporary approaches to internationalization are focused primarily on debate and discussion of these topics within the academy. While community outreach, social responsibility, social engagement and concepts such as service learning have been present in higher education for decades and in all regions of the globe, internationalisation activities have been largely concentrated on the higher education community.

The social responsibility component of internationalization has, to date, rarely been the focus of systemic thinking, conceptualization or strategy in the broad agenda of the internationalization of higher education. This imbalance needs to be addressed because universities also have a contract with and an obligation to wider society.

Limited social engagement in internationalisation

Outreach, social responsibility and engagement are an increasing focus in Europe, notes a recent mapping report of the European Union-funded project TEFCE – Towards a European Framework for Community Engagement of Higher Education.

They increasingly involve all activities of a higher education institution (research, and teaching and learning), and all actors (academics, staff, leadership, students and alumni), but compete with internationalisation.

The TEFCE report notes: “In the absence of prioritizing engagement over research excellence and internationalisation [author’s emphasis], many universities have failed to develop the appropriate infrastructures to translate the knowledge they produce into the range of contexts…”

So instead of considering internationalisation as one tool to support social engagement and responsibility – locally, nationally and globally – it is seen as a concept that draws resources, focus and infrastructure away from social engagement.

Other European or EU-funded projects such as ESPRIT are focusing on social engagement, but it is only in one (EUniverCities) that we have found a clear indication that internationalisation is seen as a valuable instrument to achieve social goals.

Even the 2017 European Commission communication “A Renewed Agenda for Higher Education”, while emphasising the relevance of social engagement, with a whole section devoted to it, does not elaborate on the power inherent in its main tool for internationalisation (Erasmus+) to tackle societal issues addressed in the agenda.

The Erasmus project that carved out a special section on internationalisation with regard to social engagement was the IMPI project which, in its toolbox, defines the fifth goal for internationalisation as being to “provide service to society and community social engagement” and even suggested 109 indicators for this area.

However, a study showed that only 18.5% of more than 800 users chose any indicators under this goal and in the newest EAIE Barometer only 11% of higher education institutions consider it a goal of internationalisation and a meagre 5% prioritise it.

This is despite the fact that the impact study of the European Voluntary Service (whose grantees are students in 61% of cases) showed substantial impact of volunteering abroad for local communities, including student attitudes towards Europe, intercultural learning, awareness of the value of volunteering, developing capacities in local communities and helping to develop civil society.

Making a meaningful contribution to society

This failure to link internationalisation to societal issues is even more surprising given that the updated definition of internationalisation in the European Parliament study of 2015 makes explicit reference to the need for internationalisation to “make a meaningful contribution to society”.

Is the situation different in other parts of the world? There is evidence to suggest that social engagement is a stronger component of the mission of higher education in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia (for example, Malaysia).

The international network of universities the Talloires Network is active all over the world, working on strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education. There are other examples. We conclude that social engagement is more present in policies, missions and processes of universities in emerging and developing regions than in Europe.

Limiting internationalisation to the higher education community anywhere in the world is to miss its tremendous opportunities. Our global society and environment are seriously endangered and internationalisation has immense potential to help solve major social issues of relevance locally and globally.

But that needs more than a few individual approaches scattered across the world. It needs a systematic understanding of the role of internationalisation beyond the walls of higher education. Hence, we suggest it is time to emphasise the need for a stronger focus on “Internationalisation in Higher Education for Society”, as stressed in the 2015 definition of internationalisation.

Firstly, this needs to be seen as the bridge between the concept of internationalisation in higher education and university social responsibility or university social engagement. Internationalisation activities as well as general social outreach activities have the goal of augmenting higher education competences and improving society, and internationalisation can be an accelerator for this.

We need a more systematic approach, though, that leverages existing and new internationalisation activities to tackle local and global social issues – including those emphasised in the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations – through social engagement.

Underused potential

The potential is undoubtedly there. Vast numbers of returning outbound as well as inbound students, academic and support staff can not only help to internationalise and ‘inter-culturalise’ the home campus, but – more importantly – can also engage with the wider public in the city, region and country.

Service learning abroad, ‘Erasmus macht Schule’ (Erasmus educates), services for refugees such as at Kiron University in Germany, and for migrant workers, as well as other aspects of engagement with businesses and the wider community, exist – but they are neither systematic nor strategic.

They need to become so in order both to educate citizens of the future in using their knowledge and competence for the good of society and also to incorporate learning from external perspectives into future curricula.

Engagement with wider society should be a prime focus and resource for initiatives concentrating on internationalisation of the curriculum at home, and global learning or global citizenship.

While, for instance, EARTH University in Costa Rica, Symbiosis International Deemed University in India and other institutions of higher education in the emerging and developing world seem to be beacons of what this could look like, the majority of examples reach only a limited number of students, academics and staff, and do not link the global to the local.

‘Internationalisation in Higher Education for Society’ needs to be wide-ranging – from mobility to internationalisation of the curriculum at home, from students to staff, from research to teaching and learning, from the world to the local community.

It is an all-encompassing concept, one with the potential to drive “comprehensive internationalisation” beyond the boundaries of our campuses. “Global learning for all”, an important emerging concept in higher education and also emphasised in the 2015 definition of internationalisation, must not stay within those boundaries but move beyond them.

In the recent European Commission call for European University Networks, at least two of them – EC2U and U4Society – explicitly stated their focus on society in the context of international higher education.

It is simply not enough to be proud of sending and receiving students and staff and even to look at the effects of this within our higher education institutions. If we are truly interested in preserving our society and our planet in the long run, we need to activate our expertise for the greater good now.

Not only is internationalisation not a goal in itself, it is also not just for ourselves: its right of existence is dependent on its ability and willingness to serve society outside the walls of higher education.

We are currently undertaking a study for the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, which will conceptualise and visualise the field and also shed light on research conducted so far. We want to identify associations, organisations and other entities that are already engaged in ‘Internationalisation in Higher Education for Society’ so that we can promote and extend this work.

We feel global developments remind us that the time for internationalisation as an ‘in-house’ issue has to be over. We have to take our responsibility to society more seriously. The times, they are a-changing – and so are the foci for internationalisation. Examples are welcome.

Uwe Brandenburg is managing director of the Global Impact Institute and associate professor at Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Spain. Email: Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. Email: Elspeth Jones is emerita professor of the internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom, and series editor of Internationalization in Higher Education (Routledge). Email: Betty Leask is emerita professor of internationalisation at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and visiting professor at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. Email:

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