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Margin Notes

Internationalization of higher ed remains a hot topic in Canada

Two conferences are being held this month in Toronto on the issue.


Internationalization continues to be a hot topic within the postsecondary education sector in Canada, as evidenced by not one, but two, upcoming conferences on the topic. And a couple new reports – one generally supportive of the trend and the other mildly cautious – will no doubt add fodder to the discussions.

Higher Education Strategy Associates, the outfit in Toronto run by Alex Usher, is organizing a two-day event starting this Thursday, Jan. 13, called “Being Global 2011: Strategies and Models for Internationalizing Higher Education”. (Twitter users can follow @BeingGlobal2011 for conference updates, as well as through the hash tag #BG2011.)

And later this month, Jan. 21-22, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations is holding its own conference entitled “The Race to Globalize Higher Education in Canada.”

I notice that both will have presentations on the Australian experience with internationalizing higher ed, which should be interesting and particularly instructive for Canada.

Of the two reports I mentioned above, one is by Mr. Usher’s firm, entitled Internationalization at Canadian Universities: Are Students Seeing the Value? The short answer to title’s question, it seems, is yes. Of the nearly 3,000 Canadian PSE students surveyed by the firm, a surprisingly high nine percent reported they had already participated in a study-abroad program, while another 26 percent said it was likely they would do so in the future. This is higher than the figure of two percent reported by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and based on data from a survey of institutions in 2006. However, AUCC’s figure is an annual figure, whereas the nine percent represents a total figure to date.

Also from the survey, students saw benefits to the “international competencies” they gain from such experiences and widely agreed that international students enhance the in-class experience and that hosting more foreign students enhances Canada’s competitiveness (71 percent and 82 percent, respectively).

The report adds a few caveats tempering these rosy results, but it does conclude overall that there is general support for the notion of internationalization.

The caution on internationalization is sounded by Jane Knight in the winter 2011 issue of International Higher Education, a quarterly publication of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College (hat tip to Memorial University Professor Dale Kirby). Dr. Knight, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, outlines in her paper the “Five Myths about Internationalization,” which can be downloaded here.

Her arguments are intriguing and provide much food for thought, and so I’m reproducing them at length here (although I encourage you to read the paper in its entirety):

Myth One: Foreign students as internationalization agents

A long-standing myth is that more foreign students on campus will produce more internationalized institutional culture and curriculum. While this may be the expectation of universities, reality often paints a different picture. In many institutions international students feel marginalized socially and academically and often experience ethnic or racial tensions. Frequently, domestic undergraduate students are known to resist, or at best to be neutral about undertaking joint academic projects or engaging socially with foreign students.

Myth Two: International reputation as a proxy for quality

Myth two rests on a belief that the more international a university is – in terms of students, faculty, curriculum, research, agreements, and network memberships – the better its reputation. This is tied to the false notion that a strong international reputation is a proxy for quality. Cases of questionable admission and exit standards for universities highly dependent on the revenue and “brand equity” of international students are concrete evidence that internationalization does not always translate into improved quality or high standards.

Myth Three: International institutional agreements

It is often believed that the greater number of international agreements or network memberships a university has the more prestigious and attractive it is to other institutions and students. But practice shows that most institutions cannot manage or even benefit from a hundred plus agreements.

Myth Four: International accreditation

International accreditations from foreign external national quality assurance agencies (especially from the United States) or professional engineering and business accreditation bodies are currently quite popular with universities in all parts of the world. The premise is that, the more international accreditation stars an institution has, the more internationalized it is and ergo the better it is. This is simply not true.

Myth Five: Global branding

Myth five relates to the incorrect assumption that the purpose of a university’s internationalization efforts is to improve global brand or standing. This confuses an international marketing campaign with an internationalization plan. The former is a promotion and branding exercise; the latter is a strategy to integrate an international, intercultural, and global dimension into the goals and teaching, research, and service functions of a university.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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