Reframing internationalisation’s values and principles

On 31 August 2018 Hans de Wit issued an open invitation to write an essay about what has “gone well” and what has “gone wrong” over the past 25 years in internationalisation of higher education. 

In the first essay, Jane Knight and Hans de Wit formulated an important question about what the core principles and values underpinning internationalisation might be and what its effect was on wider society. 

Through this article, I would like to address the kind of “fine tuning” that De Wit said is needed to move internationalisation forward over the next decades. 

I believe that going back to basic principles such as mutuality and hospitality in international relations can help higher education institutions establish positive-sum internationalisation strategies.

What went right

To many, internationalisation of higher education has been a very successful phenomenon that has helped to improve the quality and reach of education. Several things have ‘gone well’. 

Among internationalisation’s most notable achievements is the year-on-year growth in the number of students participating in mobility programmes.

The diversity in the number and type of countries hosting large numbers of students has also been growing; newcomers like China, Russia or South Africa are now among the top hosting countries, suggesting a slight shift in the direction of student mobility. 

International research collaborations are also on the rise, creating networks of diverse researchers who are working together to address common global grand challenges. 

Nowadays, higher education institutions around the world are designing their curricula in ways that expose students to – and prepare them to better function in – a globalised and diverse world. These curricula now include multilingual learning and the development of intercultural competencies across disciplines.

What went wrong

However, despite all these great achievements, there are things that have ‘gone wrong’. Internationalisation has shifted from being perceived almost exclusively as a benign form of intercultural cooperation to a narrative that situates it closer to market interests and as a tool for political and social soft power. 

International cooperation between higher education institutions, particularly between those in the Global South and the Global North, tends to be framed from a deficit perspective by the latter and can be mistaken for aid. 

Current transnational education initiatives – such as establishing branch campuses – seem to hark back to former colonial tiesand have the potential to widen the inequality gap in terms of access to higher education.

Unfortunately, the debate is more complex than this simple binary of internationalisation either as an idealistic and utopian view of an interconnected world or as a perverse mechanism that perpetuates stratification and inequality. Academic capitalism and higher education for the public good are not mutually exclusive concepts. 

The same is true for the academic capitalistic contemporary approach of internationalisation and its ability “to make a meaningful contribution to society”. 

A Western-centred focus

Our challenge lies precisely in identifying ways in which internationalisation results in a positive-sum process and not a zero-sum one. This task becomes even more challenging if we consider how internationalisation of higher education – even though it is highly political in nature – has become a punch bag for political pundits.

Recent social and political movements worldwide, like the rise of nationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, seem to be pushing internationalisation to “either be finished or, at least, be on life support”. 

Others have argued that internationalisation of higher education as we know it is not about to become extinct, but that it is merely evolving and power is shifting from the Anglosphere to a wider number of countries. 

However, it seems that in the end all these arguments end up discussing Brexit and-or US President Donald Trump as the origin of the current turmoil in internationalisation. One of many problems with this view is that it keeps placing ‘the West’ at the centre of the problem and in control of the solution.

Internationalisation has been studied for far too long using frameworks and methodologies that are Western-centred and tend to be based on underlying assumptions of unequal relationships. 

In order to move forward and deliver on the initial goals of internationalisation, we need to deconstruct and de-Westernise it; rebuild it from a more solid and humanising foundation. 

Two examples of the principles and core values that can help us start rebuilding internationalisation are the concepts of mutuality and academic hospitality.

Mutuality

The concept of mutuality was developed by the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung as a countermeasure to imperialism and as a framework for establishing more ethical and balanced cooperation mechanisms. 

It is based on the idea that institutions or individuals need to engage in four principles. The first, equity, refers to a positive-sum of benefits and mutual agreement about the aims of cooperation. 

The second, autonomy, refers to a mutual respect for each partner’s values, knowledge, norms, ways of knowing and beliefs. 

The third, solidarity, refers to a level of interconnectedness among partners for mutual support. 

Finally, the fourth, the principle of participation, refers to partnership engagement that is not hierarchical or stratified. 

A relationship where mutuality is present shows connection, understanding, involvement, communication, respect and, while the exchange might not be equivalent on both sides, the willingness and commitment of both parties to pursue a common goal. 

International partnerships, the attitudes of our students going abroad and our own attitudes to and rationales regarding how we attract and serve international students, are examples of internationalisation activities that could benefit from a mutuality lens.

Academic hospitality

The common practice of internationalisation involves the interaction between people (students, faculty and staff) of distinct national origins. These interactions need to happen in a mutual sense of academic hospitality. This term, mostly developed by John B Bennett in his 2003 book Academic Life, means a mutual openness to recognising “the interdependence of being and the interconnectedness of learning”. 

Bennett uses the concept in a much more profound way than the common ‘being nice’ approach of hospitality to mean something that goes even deeper than diplomacy. 

Within a higher education context, hospitality embedded in teaching, research and service forces us to understand the ‘Other’ on their own terms as opposed to on our terms. 

Using this approach, higher education institutions can start creating an environment that enhances intercultural engagement both within the campus (for example, between ‘local’ and ‘international’ students) and outside campus (in the relationship between the larger community and the students or between the institution and its international partners).

Moving forward

These two frameworks can strengthen the founding of a much more purposeful and ethical approach to internationalisation in higher education – one that values internationalisation as a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. 

Engaging in mutuality and academic hospitality helps position all participants in the process of internationalisation at an equal level, willing to learn from each other. It avoids an emphasis on power disparities fuelled by (current or past) geopolitical forces that perpetuate inequalities between nations. 

I believe that as scholars and practitioners of international education we have an obligation to revise the existing assumptions that lie beneath the current strategies and policies that are fuelling internationalisation agendas. Individual and institutional values and principles, like mutuality and academic hospitality, are the first steps for change. 

Practising these values needs to be accompanied by modified policies and practices that reflect these underlying principles so that we can start using internationalisation as a means to a greater common global good.

Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez is the mobility programmes coordinator at the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC). He is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, United States. He is a 2019 recipient of the Harold Josephson Award for Professional Promise in International Education of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA). Email: santiagocg@email.arizona.edu

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