Getting It Right: The Need for a National Dialogue on Comprehensive Internationalization

February 18, 2011

By Bob Stableski

There have been some interesting discussions recently about the future of internationalization of U.S. higher education.  From more than one quarter, including a recent NAFSA task force last fall, it is being suggested that the time is ripe for a broad national discussion built on the momentum international education has achieved in the past few years. The NAFSA task force specifically called for a broad-based engagement of U.S. campuses in comprehensive internationalization.

NAFSA has been instrumental in drawing attention to the need for national policies that support international education, in particular its involvement in the development of the Executive Memorandum on International Education issued by President Clinton in 2000. NAFSA’s efforts since that time have been unflagging.  But we also realize that the field of international education has moved to a different place over the past 10 years, and the national discussion will need to consider wholly new approaches and thinking in order to be relevant to today’s circumstances of a rapidly changing national and global higher education environment. A combination of national policies and a commitment by higher education to action to benefit a wide array of constituencies is essential.  It must engage the full range of higher education institutions in this country: the need is for internationalization to touch the many, not just the few.

Important new perspectives are emerging in international education and must be reflected in whatever dialogues and directions we undertake in the coming years.

The first new perspective is the realization that “campus internationalization” and “student mobility” are necessary but not sufficient organizing concepts to serve the needs of U.S. higher education needs in the 21st century.  Comprehensive internationalization is needed: commitment, confirmed through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education institutions. Comprehensive internationalization penetrates and shapes institutional ethos and values and touch the entire higher education enterprise.  It must be embraced by institutional leadership, governance, faculty, students, and all academic service and support units. It is an institutional imperative, not just a desirable possibility.

Comprehensive internationalization, as we at NAFSA understand it, not only impacts all of campus life but also the institution’s external frames of reference – its partnerships and relationships.  John Hudzik, former vice president for global engagement at Michigan State and NAFSA senior scholar, details the complex dimensions of this broader concept in NAFSA’s recent publication, Comprehensive Internationalization: from Concept to Action. Indeed, the publication lays out the rationale and elements needed to move the benefits of internationalization from the few to the many and broadly throughout higher education, from community colleges to graduate research institutions, and from small to large institutions.

A second perspective our future conversations must acknowledge is the shift in the players and stakeholders in the higher education discussion.  It is no longer sufficient for the higher education associations and government agencies to talk with each other to stimulate international education.  We must include voices, sometimes critical voices, from the business sector which can name the skills needed to succeed in a global economy.  For example, the American Association of Colleges and Universities has done excellent work with Peter Hart & Associates to define employers’ needs; this kind of research provides insightful guidance and more is needed.  The increasing role of the private sector in higher education, and international education in particular, cannot and should not be ignored in the discussion.  Accreditation groups, both regional and disciplinary, also hold great sway in influencing the debate, setting the tone for globally competent graduates.

In addition to these new perspectives to consider, our knowledge of the dynamics of international education in the United States needs to be updated.  The American Council on Education’s Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses provides the last thorough review of the state of the field—but it was published in 2008 and was based on 2006 data.  Any observer of international education knows that there has been dramatic change in the past five years.  And, further, the ACE study employed metrics related to the dialogue of the time in which was conducted - “internationalization of the campus,” not the more current definition of “comprehensive internationalization.” In short, we need to understand the lay of the land better before we develop a plan of action to change it.

We should not retread tired meetings of the past, but rather look to new approaches and perhaps even new goals that reflect emerging trends and new ideas.  We should carefully consider what is required to have a meaningful discussion about the future of higher education internationalization.  In doing so, we need to reflect new perspectives and be more inclusive of the ever-widening array of people and interests who can contribute to and benefit from a new paradigm and concerted action.


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