Time for a “shift” in internationalisation, say ministers

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At the EAIE conference in Rotterdam, which took place from September 26-29, education ministers and secretaries of state for education and higher education came together to talk about the issues facing the sector.

“I think internationalisation is still very popular in the academic world,” said Ligia Deca, the education minister for Romania.

“It’s highlighting the social and economical role of higher education and how internationalisation adds to that. It doesn’t take away anything, it actually adds to it.

“I think I’m starting to view internationalisation as an integral part of higher education as quality assurance, for example… if we consider it as a given, it’s a matter of how we make it count,” Deca continued.

The setting of the conference – the Netherlands’ port city of Rotterdam – also caught the attention of one of the panel moderators, who mentioned the notable absence of the country’s own education minister.

“We see that nationalism is happening increasingly against internationalisation, higher education, we see the negative aspects and consequences here in the Netherlands.

“Maybe that’s also the reason why this minister is not here – that he’s afraid of being confronted in those kinds of discussions about how we can resolve things,” said Hans de Wit, a leading voice in the internationalisation of higher education.

For the Portuguese secretary of state for education, Pedro Teixeira, the challenges lie in how much effort universities put into internationalisation on the wider scale and what needs to change to foster development.

“I think the government should be willing to change some significant parts of the system, regulations regarding degrees for example, if we want to make this really transformative.

“But I think there is a quid pro quo here. There’s no point in changing the regulations at the national level if this is just another activity that institutions do on top of everything else. Unless there is a strong commitment on the side of institutions saying this will be the key vehicle for European internationalisation for the next several years, it doesn’t work.

“Otherwise, what’s the point of changing these rules and adjusting the regulations for I don’t know, maybe five or six joint degrees? There’s no point… Governments will [then] be much less willing to change,” Teixeira explained.

He suggested a possible shift with internationalisation. Instead of internationalisation of higher education, instead, it should be internationalisation in higher education, he said.

Locally, there is a sense of complacency being faced by Lithuanian institutions, according to the minister for science, education and sport, Justas Nugaras – a shift in mindset has seen more students in the west view exchange programs as all but moot.

“We see that nationalism is happening increasingly against internationalisation”

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Erasmus program was a big deal to the West and it was full of opportunities, full of new possibilities, a new way of teaching and a new way of learning.

“The line was that you need to go abroad because that will add value to your perceptions.

“Now, students are in the West, and they don’t see exchange programs as a window of opportunity, they see it as a casual thing. So in Lithuania we’ve faced that and we’ve needed to rethink our advertising strategies,” Nugaras explained.

Solving challenges was a key theme in this year’s conference. There were hard truths needing to be faced in equality, diversity and inclusion efforts across institutions in terms of international graduate employability.

EDI director at the University of Edinburgh Omolabake Fakunle showed delegates some results from a study on expectations of non-EU students in the UK for getting visas to work post graduation.

“We want to see you make good on those values, to action them”

One student she interviewed during the study showed the excitement and confidence at the beginning of their degree, which turned to disappointment at the impossible hoops they were having to jump through to try and get employed after studying in the UK.

“He never thought about the structural impediment – he was glowing in that first interview and said, ‘come on, I’m good, I’m one of the best in my country. I’m going to get it’.

“Yes, you can be the best – and that’s the slogan in the UK; attract the brightest and the best. But it does not necessarily mean you will [be successful] if you do not contend with structural factors and the level of disappointment that can bring,” Fakunle warned.

The conference was also EAIE’s most sustainable ever, with over 1,000 travelling by train and multiple people cycling to Rotterdam, as well as the saving of over 25.5 tonnes of carbon emissions as a result.

The first plenary, which was conducted by Gen Z expert Jahkini Bisselink and activist Hajar Yagkoubi, pulled together the mission of international educators in how they can interact better with this newer, more activistic generation.

“You have Gen Z and they say, well, values are important but we want an action-oriented organisation, so it’s no longer sufficient just to have values.

“We want to see you make good on those values, to action them, to fully embrace them within your entire organisation – so we’re really going from value-led organisations to action-led,” Yagkoubi declared.

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