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More countries moving to internationalise higher education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New research from the British Council looks at the internationalisation policies for higher education in 26 countries
  • It ranks Germany and Malaysia at the top of the study sample as having the most balanced portfolios in support of internationalisation, with the UK and Australia following close behind
  • The report makes a number of important observations of the emerging global context, including that there is now an increasing number of countries with a national commitment to internationalise higher education
  • It further highlights the continuing importance of student mobility and student recruitment but also that many countries are pursuing a broader concept of internationalisation with greater scope for collaborative teaching and research

A new study aims to provide a detailed snapshot of the countries that are “best engaged” in internationalising higher education, and, by extension, those that are best equipped to thrive in the quickly changing and evolving global market for education.

The Shape of Global Higher Education: National Policies Framework for International Engagement examines the level of government support for international higher education – as expressed in policies, national strategies, and legislation – in 26 countries. The country sample features both major study destinations, including the US and UK, along with a broad mix of markets, such as China, Malaysia, Brazil, and Vietnam, representing both traditional education exporters and importers.

“There is hardly a country left unaffected by the global flows of students, teaching and research, so the value of a greater understanding of national higher education systems has never been more important,” added British Council Director Education and Society Jo Beall. “The future of higher education will depend on successful, sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships.”

The 26 countries in the sample were examined using a framework of 37 indicators, the summary scores for which indicate that Germany and Malaysia were the highest-rated countries in the sample with “the most balanced portfolio of national policies supporting [international higher education].” The UK and Australia followed closely behind in the overall scoring, and the British Council has also released more detailed data for each of the 37 indicators in a new “Global Gauge” tool so that readers can explore the nuances of scoring for individual countries in more detail.

Much will be made of the relative position of the various countries in the ranking table, but, as with all such exercises, ready questions also arise regarding the weighting of criteria and other aspects of methodology. Arguably more important, however, is the study’s finding that there is now an increasing number of countries with a national commitment to internationalising higher education. The authors note as well that “higher education institutions are the major drivers of international higher education in a number of countries…In some countries, to counteract the lack of national support, higher education institutions are leading their own internationalisation initiatives.”

Other key findings include:

  • Most countries were rated highly for financial support of international higher education. This type of support is often focused on student mobility and on initiatives to boost equitable access and discourage brain drain, and is particularly evident in countries with large higher education systems, such as China, Malaysia, and Germany.
  • Nearly all countries – 23 of 26 in the study – also scored well for national-level policies to support student mobility, particularly their “student-friendly and welcoming visa policies.”
  • In contrast, quality assurance was flagged as an area of weakness for many countries in the study. Those that scored better in this regard are the countries that generally have “an established record of delivering transnational education programmes, such as Australia, Malaysia, Germany, and the UK.” Interestingly, however, national recognition of degrees received via transnational education programmes was another area of weakness noted by the authors. That is to say: very few countries have formal mechanisms in place to recognise such degrees.
  • Largely driven by educator and stakeholder interest in improved performance in global ranking schemes, international research collaborations are becoming more prominent in internationalisation policy.

The authors cite as well three emerging themes that carry across all aspects of internationalisation policy. First, they highlight the importance of national strategies for international education: “Increased commitment towards international higher education is evidenced through countries’ [national] strategies, some of which are reflected in reformed higher education legislations. These are strong signals of readiness to engage internationally and to support their higher education systems’ global positioning.”

Recent examples of such strategies include a comprehensive, integrated approach recently launched in Australia, Malaysia’s Education Blueprint 2015-2020, and Germany’s Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Strategy 2020. The report makes the interesting related points that national strategies are most commonly expressed as recruitment goals and that the implementation of a well-articulated strategy can be a source of competitive advantage for study destinations.

This connects strongly to a second theme identified in the report: the continuing importance of student mobility as a “building block” for national internationalisation strategies. “Student mobility is the policy area which has attracted the most government support,” says the report. “The majority of these countries have streamlined student access to their higher education systems through student-friendly visa policies.”

Finally, the study highlights an emerging theme with respect to international collaborations in teaching and research. This reflects in part an ongoing expansion of transnational education initiatives but also a growing interest on the part of governments in international research activity. The authors caution, however, that, “While research has attracted a high level of national support, the enabling infrastructure which would enhance collaboration through academic mobility (inbound and outbound) is still lagging behind. This is further complicated by unintended consequences of internationalisation such as brain drain. Countries sensitive about brain drain are reluctant to support academic mobility, but their higher education institutions see international collaborations as a means for capacity building.”

Taken together, these themes describe a context for international education that is becoming more complex and layered. Student mobility and student recruitment remains at the core of many national strategies but increasingly we see that countries and institutions are also pursuing a broader concept of internationalisation, one that incorporates a much broader scope for academic collaboration and exchange.

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