Guest blogger: Is Internationalisation of Higher Education a ‘Fuzzy Concept’?

Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu (University of Ljubljana)

Sintayehu Kassaye Alemu
(University of Ljubljana)

This guest entry is written by Sintayehu K Alemu. He is a graduate of the Hedda master programme and is currently working on his PhD at the Center for Educational Policy Studies (CEPS) at University of Ljubljana as a part of the UNIKE project. Earlier, he has studied history at Addis Abbaba University, and obtained a MA degree in general education at Umea University in Sweden. His PhD project is titled: ‘’A Comparative Analysis of Practices and Impacts of Internationalization of Higher Education on the Academic life in the Centers and Peripheries’. 

Markusen has defined ‘fuzzy concept’ as ”one which posits an entity, phenomenon or process which possesses two or more alternative meanings and thus cannot be reliably identified or applied by different readers or scholars” (Markusen, 2003, p.702).

“We use the term more and more and seem to pay less and less attention to what it means. While the need for global and international studies is generally accepted, there is no agreement as to what it means or how this can be implemented” (Schoorman, 2000, p.3).  Internationalisation of higher education is understood differently by different people. It sounds a fuzzy concept  probably because the concept is built upon the experiences and activities of the global North. Its fuzzines also emanates from the unidirectional articulation of its  perspective. Internationalisation of higher education seems to be fuzzy because the ”commonly accepted” definition and conceptualization have done little to address the specific approaches emerging from different  contexts. Due to these facts, there is little agreement about what internationalisation means and what strategies are most effective for its implementation in different regions and countries (Cross et al., 2011). In spite of these assumptions,  internationalisation of higher education is increasingly growing in importance in terms of programs, research, mobility of faculty and students, and institutions’ environment.  Inter alia, perspectives and definitions of internationalisation are focused  under the following questions: Is internationalisation of higher education an outward or inward looking or both? which perspective does the most common definition reflect?

Importance and Expansion of Internationalisation

Since the 1990s, globalisation, the neoliberal ideology, and the emergence of knowledge economy and society have expanded and diversified activities, rationales and actors, and shaped policies and strategies of internationalisation. From more or less traditional forms such as student and academic staff mobility, internationalisation policies and practices nowadays have moved to ”at home” and abroad activities: such as exporting higher education via branch campuses and institutional cooperation, developing transnational university networks and virtual delivery of higher education, and the harmonization of higher education systems. Because of the diversified rationales, activities, actors and approaches, internationalisation of higher education has become an overextended and complex concept, whose perspective and definition are not well enunciated.

Is Internationalisation inward or outward looking?

How do we understand and think about internationalisation? Is internationalisation an inward or outward looking? This is an important inquiry in understanding the concept of internationalisation. Some scholars, like Jane Knight (2004)  consider and understand internationalisation from an internal(inward) perspective of the higher education institutions. From her perspective or approach, internationalisation is a process of integrating an international and intercultural dimension into the existing institutional setting. Still others, for instance, Hawawini (2011) believes that the process of internationalisation is an outward looking rather than an inward looking and has external focus of approach. From an outward perspective, internationalisation is the process of integrating the institution and its stakeholders, including students, faculty, and staff, into a globalized world. Does internationalisation integrate the higher education institutions into the emerging global knowledge and learning network or does it integrate an international dimension into the existing institutional situation? Or is it both? From practical point of view, however, the process of  internationalisation seems to have internal and external perspectives in which an institution learns from others and contributes to the world because the ultimate goal of internationalisation, inter alia,  should be emphasizing the institution’s capacity and ability to become an integral part of the world’s knowledge and learning network. It is not only to benefit from the rest of the world but also to contribute to its development. So, the definition of internationalisation should consider the inward and outward perspectives of the process of internationalisation of higher education in addition to considering the specific approaches emerging from different contexts.

Definition of Internationalisation

Current literature debates on internationalisation of higher education have done little to address the specific approaches emerging from different contexts. Although, there has been a recent increase of information disseminated from Asia, Latin America, and Africa, most debates seem to be concerned with legitimizing and universalizing concepts and approaches to internationalisation as conceived from the experiences and traditions of the global North (de Wit and Urias, 2012; Cross et al., 2011). The current concept of internationalisation of higher education tends to accept unproblematically  as globally established truth (Cross et al., 2011). Still, many scholars proposed different definitions but in similar context. Some of the definitions in the literature are the following: Internationalisation of higher education is

  • ”the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education” (Knight, 2004).
  • ”the process of integrating the institution and its key stakeholders – its students, faculty, and staff – into a globalising world” (Hawawini, 2011).
  • ”any systematic effort aimed at making higher education responsive to the requirements and challenges related to the globalisation of societies, economy and labour markets” (van der Wende, 2010).
  • ”an ongoing, counter-hegemonic educational process that occurs in an international context of knowledge and practice where societies are viewed as subsystems of a larger, inclusive world. The process of internationalisation at an educational institution entails a comprehensive, multifaceted program of action that integrates all aspects of education” (Schoorman, 2000).

Conclusively, the different definitions that shelter in the context of the global North; the use of  internationalisation to describe a vast array of issues, strategies, and new developments in the world; and the diversified objectives and stakeholders have made the concept of internationalisation more complex and different for different people.

It will be better to understand internationalisation as having specific contexts and as an inward and outward looking. It should be considered contextually policy-driven mobility of people, programs and institutions (providers), rationally motivated, strategically modelled and approach oriented process of the international dimension/aspect of higher education.