What does internationalisation mean to institutions?

Published 13/03/2024

The intricacies of implementing internationalisation in higher education across the world are complex – and with the vast cultural differences across the world, so too differ the methods in which it can help universities.

The PIE spoke to three internationalisation heads at universities in Mexico, the UK and Spain to get their take on what internationalisation means for their institutions.

It’s not all about mobility

“We have less than 5% international students,” Matxalen Llosa, head of internationalisation at the University of Cantabria, in Spain, tells The PIE.

“Our population is not very diverse at Cantabria. The figure is increasing, but largely, our university students are usually first generation students from within the region,” she relents .

“What we try to do is to really push our students to be international.

“We get them onto mobilities abroad, but we also make sure they get [that experience] just by doing international educational activities.”

Cantabria’s biggest venture into internationalisation is at the alliance level – they are a founding member of EUNICE, the European University for Customised Education.

It collaborates on multiple levels with nine other member institutions in mid-size cities in Sweden, Poland, Finland, Belgium and others. The alliance, which was formed during the pandemic, works together to offer possible inter-mobility pathways, as well as Collaborative Online International Learning.

“The main challenge is to get ready to get to know each other. I think the basis for the alliance is creating a network of trust. Once you make that, you can build on it very easily. And finally, now that we really know each other, it’s much easier to engage into common projects,” Llosa recounts.

EUNICE helps issue a unit certificate in “common competencies”, which students can get in their senior year, before they begin higher education.

The criteria that needs to be met for it includes proficiency in English – or a any language of the alliance – and a physical mobility program, or participation in the university’s “multicultural” module.

However, Llosa stresses that studying abroad is a minority, due to what students are able to afford and their own commitments.

“What we try to do is to really push our students to be international”

“We are trying to bring the world to the students here by doing a lot of cultural activities with units doing also COIL activities.”

Global studies also makes up another part of Cantabria’s internalisation strategy, with the institution having constructed a two-week summer course in global studies, as well as created a Massive Online Open Course in the subject.

“At the end students will receive a certificate that says they are internationally [competent],” Llosa adds.

The Three I’s

When he talks to The PIE on his home turf at Tecnológico de Monterrey, vice-rector of academic affairs, faculty and internationalisation Ignacio de La Vega makes a bold claim.

“Tec de Monterrey is the Real Madrid of international mobility,” he states.

“Probably because of our dimension, but also we have it in our mission. We’ve been developing investment and effort into mobility,” he says.

Some 8,000 students at Tec go for a semester abroad each year, and pre-pandemic, it was receiving 4,000 a semester – since a drop during Covid, numbers have recovered to just over 2,000 a semester.

Tec has 35 campuses across Mexico, as well as four of its own academic delegations in Boston, Copenhagen, Berlin and Chicago.

When its new president, David Garza, took up his post in 2020, he wanted to lead under the three I’s: Internationalización, Investigación (research), and inovación.

“That is very much in our agenda. I was very impressed about what we were doing in terms of mobility [when I joined], but, we wanted to keep pushing some other aspects of internationalisation.”

De la Vega helped the university create the Tec Global Shared Learning Initiative – for short, Tec Global. The lowest-hanging fruits he could tackle, he says, were internationalisation of faculty, and Tec’s offering in English.

When he was dean at the business school in 2017, he helped create the university’s first degree in English in business.

“How do we keep pushing the our English offering if we want to attract degree seeking students? That [has been] a major focus we’ve been working on in the last few years,” he notes.

Tec also created, institutionally, a committee for international development comprising the higher level of organisation and presided by Rafael Reif, former president of MIT.

“Tec de Monterrey is the Real Madrid of international mobility”

The partnerships Tec is attempting to build at present are “thought-led”, de la Vega claims – “establishing up to three very deep, vertical, high level” partnerships.

“We’re looking at some options in the US, in Europe – and how we get together with a partner institution, to work on a large project that is properly connected to our vision.”

A core pillar

When Jo Angouri was designing the University of Warwick’s internationalisation of education strategy, she went to the people that really mattered for help.

“We talk about students, and what the students want, without actually giving the student the opportunity really to own at least part of this discussion,” she affirms.

Angouri sees everyone being on a learning journey – and with the strategy she wrote, she wanted to emphasise global learning – and move beyond linearity.

“International is [often] seen very narrowly, in relation to the particular design of study abroad, or boundaries of online, offline, short-term mobility, long-term mobility. It’s a very static way.

“For, us internationalisation is built on the values we have as a university on making the most of pedagogic innovation and the design that would enable us to really bring the study abroad opportunity to the whole of the student cycle – and not something that happens to one part of your degree,” Angouri explains.

“We talk about students… without actually giving the student the opportunity to own at least part of this discussion”

She stresses that mobility can be understood in a way that is much more dynamic than something that just happens when you finish your second year.

Angouri also values the need for transnational collaboration “for the kind of education we want our students to have” – and the current partners Warwick has are vital, giving the opportunity to work closely internationally not just at student level, but faculty level too.

Warwick is a founding member of EUTopia, another European university alliance that wants to become the institution of the future in the continent.

The project has conducted its pilot phase, wherein it established 30 “learning communities” essentially connecting the institutions and providing students and staff to add value to existing education offerings.

“We were in the time of Covid… so we used technology to really enhance learning and provide our students opportunities to work with their peers [in other institutions] as part of the curriculum,” Angouri notes.

Over 7,000 students have been connected across the six original partners, with over 1,000 being connected at Warwick.

EUTopia now sports, including Warwick, 10 partners: Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, CY Cergy Paris University, the Technische Universität Dresden, the University of Gothenburg, the University of Ljubljana, the NOVA University Lisbon and the Pompeu Fabra University-Barcelona.

Angouri stresses that in any case, she doesn’t like initiatives in internationalisation that use the “top-down, bottom-up” metaphor. “Students and staff aren’t at he bottom of anything. They’re the centre,” she says.

“And unless we have more flexible designs, we are not going to be able to offer opportunities to the majority of our students, which is what I would like to see.”

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