Perpectives on the Internationalization of Higher Education

By Danica Fink-Hafner and Tamara Dagen

Over the last few decades, researchers in the field of higher education have closely linked internationalization with globalization processes. However, particularly since the 2008 international financial and economic crisis, economics and politics in the global context have been increasingly changing in the framework of processes that have been named by various terms, such as “deglobalization”, “slowbalization” (slowing down the process of globalization from light speed to a snail pace) or oriented toward (global) regionalization. What about higher education in such a global context? Will the nation state retain its critically important role in higher education, and consequently in its internationalization? Will regionalization surpass the role of nation state? Or is the nation state expected to lose its role due to the activity of business in higher education?

We (in collaboration with May Doušak, Mitja Hafner-Fink and Meta Novak from University of Ljubljana) invited the 175 participants of the recent Shaping Sustainable Futures for Internationalization in Higher Education conference to complete a survey sharing their expert views on these important issues. Twenty-nine participants (17 % of all the invited) took the survey. Most (c.70%) came from Canada, others hailed from the USA, Germany, India, Kazakhstan and Russia.  Interestingly 75% of the respondents have been living in more than one country; 38% were in academia, 32% from university/college administration and the rest were graduate and doctoral students. Our initial findings are presented below.

The changing role of the nation state

While the nation state has retained a critical role in higher education internationalization, participants stressed that globalization has not only impacted national higher education policies in their country, as much as 71% who answered the question estimated that globalization even changed the role of the state in higher education. Nevertheless, many agreed that globalization in the field is a positive phenomenon, while negative views of globalization’s impact on higher education were relatively rare.

In a similar manner, internationalization was also considered mostly as a positive phenomenon. Deglobalization or slowbalization were barely mentioned by participants. However, one participant noted that “different countries are positioned differently to these processes” and another participant stressed that “as higher education and labour markets grow, higher education becomes more regional and less global“.

Participants were divided into four viewpoints on what this means for the role of the nation state in higher education. First, the role of the nation state is declining. Second, it is remaining the same. Third, it is increasing. Fourth, it varies in relation to country specific contexts – depending on “how the nation state is included /excluded in higher education and how globalization affects it“, which again “depends on the national context“.

Looking to the future, nearly a third of reponses indicated that the role of the nation state will remain the same as it is now, although the same share of respondents pointed again to variation between different national contexts. As one participant noted, the future “depends on the nation-state strategy and its education policy development”. A somewhat lower number of respondents estimated either that the role of a nation state will increase and that it will decrease. Anyway, in a complex global context, foresights should also leave space for unpredictable or unforeseen events and processes with extreme consequences. As one of the participants put it: “nobody knows – too many black swans”.

Are private actors challenging the role of the nation state in higher education?

Many repondents observed that businesses are increasingly offering internationally developed training programs and postsecondary credentials to higher education organizations. Privatized higher education was perceived as continuously expanding around the world, comprising a broad variety of actors and activities, such as:

ranking agencies, private firms preparing formal documentation for universities and trainings; studying abroad agencies; several large world-wide private university companies (La Salle for example), “Centres of Excellence” program mostly run by private business educational & training companies and the main consultant for the overall project being McKinsey; training programs, internships, placements, study abroad by third party businesses.

Such activities are on the rise in both public and in private universities.

Future relationships between public and private actors and programs have not yet merited much analysis. On the one hand, respondents expected that levels of public higher education will remain the same (38%) or even increase in the future (31%). But on the other hand, most also expected private higher education to increase (63%). And again, we also saw a stress on the national context in answering these questions: as one participant observed, “depends on the country, on parties in government”.

Sustainable Internationalization

When thinking about the meaning of the term ‘sustainable internationalization in higher education’, participants did not explicitly tackle the issues of the increasing involvement of international private actors and programs. Rather, they listed definitions, or rather qualifications of internationalization, such as: “long-term change; positive process including learning; inclusive internationalization, meeting the needs of the global North and the global South; sustainability goals; sustainable higher education activities; and cooperation between various agents and institutions (locally, regionally, globally)“.

Nevertheless, there were also thoughts beyond the usual Western-centered thinking, such as: “I am not sure it can be sustained. At the elemental level much of the current interest in internationalization is due to gaps between have (sustainable) and have not (unsustainable) jurisdictions. What if the have not jurisdiction/jurisdictions catch-up, as China is doing?“.

Participants offered four sets of ideas about how internationalization could become more sustainable. Firstly, sustainability was understood as supporting equality and access to higher education, and providing international support in vulnerable fields/countries. Secondly, participants suggested that there should be an ongoing exchange of ideas, challenges, thoughts and passions as well as technological developments; similarly, also “collaboration between all stakeholders within and outside the nation stateneed to be ensured. A third group of suggestions linked sustainability to ecological activities such as Fridays For Future or ensuring higher education institutions are zero waste. Finally, participants also pointed to global citizenship education as means of increasing sustainability.


The survey results offer three main findings. First, there were varied views on both complex global processes and their impacts on higher education. That variation related to the particular contexts where respondents are situated and of the higher education systems they observe. Second, there are not only the geopolitical, economic and cultural factors at play in current global rearrangements in higher education, but increasingly privatization brought about by business and other private actors on a global scale. Third, debates over sustainability in higher education need to tackle issues of global inequalities and the means for overcoming those inequalities.

All in all, survey participants point at the need to overcome the usual Western-centered thinking rooted on the global asymmetries in the development of higher education systems as a justification for internationalization. We need to better understand the changing global context of higher education and to inform better policy design in this field.

The authors appreciate collaboration with the SSFIHE organizing committee in conducting the survey among conference participants and thank all the participants who filled in the survey questionnaire.

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