International for What?

January 28, 2016

By Marlene M. Johnson

Last week, NAFSA published a Trends & Insights essay, Welcome to the Era of “Global Competition 2.0,” which described how rankings drive intense competition between research universities pursuing a global institutional model. The authors described several common features of these institutions, including global mission, research intensity, and worldwide recruitment. They also noted that “many strive toward [such] characteristics . . . regardless of the alignment between these features and their original missions (for example, providing quality teaching or service to local populations.)”

That same week, Times Higher Education announced its 2016 list of the most international universities in the world. Such lists always produce the usual range of pride and consternation. While I know the rankings are based on very specific published criteria, in this case, the proportions of international staff, international students, and research papers co-authored by scholars from different countries, they always leave me dissatisfied. Do such criteria truly reflect the values of internationalization?

A primary goal of higher education is to increase the capacity for critical thinking – to teach students to question, analyze, and interpret. International education or global learning helps students consider questions from multiple perspectives; to imagine “walking in someone else’s shoes”; to understand that solutions come in many different forms, and that “my way” is not always the best way.

It is widely accepted that a diverse student body is an important educational asset, and so a diverse international student body can contribute to capacity for critical thinking. But how do we measure the relationship of international students to local students and to local communities?

Where is the university ranking that values the intent to provide an education that connects people across differences and helps them learn from each other and about each other? Where is the ranking that values engagement of students and faculty in addressing real world problems and building capacity for social responsibility, peacebuilding, and justice seeking? Where is the university ranking of institutions that produce active social justice advocates, community leaders who are building a civil society in their own countries, social entrepreneurs or candidates for local, state, and national office?

We all know many institutions that are built on the values of global learning, critical thinking, and diversity of perspective and experience. As the authors of Welcome to the Era of “Global Competition 2.0” reminded me, ranking mania produces a “narrowly focused notion of “excellence”.” We should not lose sight of broader visions.


Marlene M. Johnson is the Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Learn more about the NAFSA 2016 Ron Moffatt Seminar on Peace and the Global Civil Society.


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