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The internationalization of higher education – Instalment 1

By Margaret Adolphus


Dubai, for several years an icon of luxury, enterprise and elaborate architecture, may be about to get a rival. Around 35 miles from Seoul, South Korea, on a man-made island almost twice the size of New York's Central Park, New Songdo City is the world's newest city and largest real estate development in history.

A key ingredient of this new metropolis, whose real estate prices will be far beyond the means of the average Korean, will be the Songdo Global University Campus. Here foreign universities will be encouraged to set up outposts. The objective is to blend the strengths of American, European and Korean academe.

This is a bold project (the cost of the entire city is estimated at $60 billion), but it's a reflection of a world where higher education is striving for global influence.

More or less all higher education institutes, particularly those in the "developed" world, are looking to create an international dimension, whether through changing their syllabus, creating exchange programmes, or opening branches overseas.

What makes a university genuinely international, and the reasons for wanting to be so, are extremely complex. In this article, we look at those reasons, at the models of internationalization adopted, and at what makes good practice.

Publisher's note:

The author is very grateful to the following people who kindly helped with this article:

  • Nicola Hiljkema, vice rector for international relations at the Estonian Business School, Estonia.
  • Dr Somboon Kulvisaechana, associate director of the Center for Corporate Communications and International Affairs, Thammasat Business School, Thailand.
  • Professor Danica Purg, president, IEDC-Bled School of Management, South Africa.
  • Marietjie Wepener, marketing and communications director at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa.
  • Professor John Wilson, head of Salford Business School, UK.

What are the drivers behind the move towards globalization?

Reflecting a globalized world

Globalization has created the need, as never before, for employees who can work all over the world, in diverse business environments and cultures. Goods, capital, services, labour and even knowledge circulate freely in a global economy. Problems, too, are global: take for example the way that the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the US had repercussions all over the world.

Business educators are conscious of the need to create global citizens. Professor John Wilson, head of Salford Business School, UK, wants to ensure that undergraduates are equipped not only with technical knowledge, but also awareness of different cultures, so that they can work in any part of the world.

And Marietjie Wepener, marketing and communication director at the University of Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa, believes that it is no longer possible to teach in isolation,

" ... we are part of a global economy and our students will be part of a global economy".

And because knowledge workers move around the world, knowledge too becomes global, especially as creativity is sharpened and stimulated with the mix of cultures. Universities are in an excellent position to nurture this process.

Needs of the emerging and developing world

Nations whose economies are rapidly developing, and who seek to join the superpower elite, know they must create an educated workforce. If they rely on sending people abroad, they risk losing talented people who stay in their country of study. They therefore need to create their own world-class universities.

India and Korea, for example, are both investing heavily in higher education:

  • India needs to increase its number of skilled workers and therefore the higher education sector's ability to provide them – its goal is 21 per cent enrolment in higher education by 2017, an increase of 9 per cent, which will require a further 1,500 education providers (Brady, 2010).
  • Korea has pledged $600 million to its World Class University Project, a ministry-of-education bid to raise the quality of research in 30 universities (McNeill, 2009).

Kick-starting higher education is often best done by inviting international help in the form of foreign investment:

  • India has gone along this route and is attempting to tidy up its regulatory process to make things easier for its foreign partners. The UK is now India's "partner of choice", and the UK-India Education and Research Initiative was launched in 2006, with funding from both countries' governments, as well as private investors (Baty, 2009a).
  • China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) was established in 1994 in Shanghai as a global business school. Faced with the task of creating a brand, and producing and sustaining excellence, quickly, CEIBS followed a unique strategy: they "produced an egg with a borrowed hen" by importing foreign faculty, and "borrowed a nest" from Shanghai Jiaotong university, where they have their campus.

Needs of the developed world

Higher education in Australia and the West is big business – but, in an increasingly competitive environment where demographic trends mean competing for a declining pool of home students, higher education establishments also need to act like big business and find new markets.

In the UK, reduction in government funding has led many universities to look to recruit students from abroad as an income boost, while in the US, universities have adopted what may be described as an "import/export" approach to the issue. On the one hand, they do their best to attract international students; on the other, many go on what has been described as a "gold rush" (Lewin, 2008) to set up outposts in countries with limited higher education opportunities.

The creation of such partnerships and programmes helps raise the profile of the host country abroad, and also attract top research talent, which can lead to research grants and patents which benefit all parties.

Accreditation is also an important driver – internationalization is one of the criteria for assessment through the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) at the European Foundation for Management Development (see

Models of internationalization

The process of internationalization of universities is a response to economic globalization. There are a whole range of different approaches, and no one universal blueprint, but the outcome ensures that the university's horizons, and those of its students, are international.

A few universities are "born" international – for example, INSEAD and IMD, or CEIBS in China.

IEDC-Bled School of Management in Slovenia was also set up with an international remit, becoming the leading management development institute in Eastern Europe, and offering expertise to countries in transition elsewhere. More than 80 per cent of its faculty, and 70 per cent of its students, come from outside Slovenia.

University complexes in developing nations such as Qatar or Korea also fit into this category by means of specifically inviting foreign partnerships, but the considerable investment involved means that this model is only suitable for exceptional circumstances.

The rest need to graft the international perspective onto their original mission, which may have been, say, to support the emergence of an industrial city such as Manchester, or to educate the citizens of a particular state.

Salford's John Wilson believes that there is a whole spectrum of models of internationalization. At the one end, is the university which seeks to be mainly local, but gives its students the opportunity to broaden their perspectives, to interact with other cultures, and preserve them from parochialism.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the university which seeks to be a global player: take, for example, Manchester University, which explicitly states on its website that it wants, by 2015, to be in the world's top 25 universities, with a world-class infrastructure [].

Still in the UK, the University of Warwick is slightly less ambitious, with the goal of being in the world's top 50 universities, and an "acknowledged world centre of higher education by 2015" [] .

Within this category, and in the same league, are what were described at a recent conference of higher education leaders as "global research universities", "some of the world's most globally connected institutions" carrying out world-class research, competing in global rankings, and with highly mobile students and staff (Labi, 2010).

And finally in this category, there are the mega universities, the huge complexes in Qatar and Songdo, with campuses from several universities.

Whatever model is chosen, the challenge, according to John Sexton, the president of New York University, is how to internationalize whilst maintaining quality.

Creating the international experience at home

For many universities the objective is to have an international dimension, and ensure that they produce students who – even if they come from the local area – are not parochial.

According to John Wilson, they do this by:

  • recruiting both students and faculty from a variety of countries (including from outside the EU if they are British),
  • student exchanges,
  • introducing international elements into the curriculum.

The international elements include modules not only on global business functions such as marketing and strategy, but also on sustainability and ethics. The modular structure of degree courses means that the university can offer these components while also retaining those relevant to their local situation, hence remaining rooted in their own culture.

At Stellenbosch's business school, most core Master of Business Administration (MBA) modules prepare students for working in a global environment, while some elective modules focus on specific international subjects, such as doing business in the East/China. At the same time, the syllabus reflects the local issues of HIV (there is an elective on HIV management), poverty and emerging markets, and is slanted towards social rather than environmental issues, as the former are more critical in South Africa.

Some universities seek to provide a broad academic experience by allowing students to study subjects outside their core programme. Experiential learning – in essence, project work – is also popular. One form this takes is conscious exposure to other cultures and languages.

The Villanova School of Business in Philadelphia recognizes the need to expose its students to the four BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other rapidly developing countries. Immersion trips, where students travel to these countries, and also undertake projects, are part of its executive MBA.

Thammasat Business School in Thailand arranges social activities between its Thai and international students (there for a semester on an exchange). This means, according to Dr Somboon Kulvisaechana, associate director of the Center for Corporate Communications and International Affairs, that the Thai students are taken out of their comfort zone, and have to communicate in English.

It is important to create a mindset which is capable of being open to different cultures, and openness is encouraged in various ways. IEDC-Bled School of Management in Slovenia, for example, uses music to help people become better listeners and visual arts to become better observers.

The language issue

English is a, if not the, global language of business communication, so many non-English speaking universities are adopting English as a main teaching language. This is, as can be imagined, not without its problems.

Do faculty members for whom English is a second language, or visiting British faculty for that matter, really speak it well enough, with correct grammar and recognizable accent? If serious efforts are being made to recruit English-speaking students, will their language needs be met elsewhere on campus?

MIB School of Management in Trieste, Italy, having taken the decision to change the language of teaching from Italian to English, systematically looked at everything that needed to be changed, for example the signage, the menus in the restaurant, and the English abilities of the support staff, from the waitresses in the restaurant to those catering for the students' practical and emotional needs (Hijlkema, 2010)

Hijlkema also gets very frustrated when in her bilingual business school she sees e-mails only in Estonian. Such e-mails automatically get deleted by non-Estonian students, and faculty, even when they contain important information.

Not all universities face these problems, perhaps through having a more gradual approach.

For example, when Stellenbosch Business School was started in 1964, Afrikaans was the main language for teaching. English was adopted as demand grew from non-Afrikaans speakers, and now, as one of the three top business schools in South Africa, all but one of the classes are taught in English. As the transition was gradual, and as English is also a major language of South Africa, there were no problems making the switch.

Thammasat Business School believes that it can best meet the challenges of globalization by ensuring that its students are able to communicate in English and become cross-culturally sensitive. English is the teaching language for the international Bachelor of Business Administration, which admits 120 students a year. Because it is a highly selective programme, it is able to take the top students, who already have exceptional English; they may have studied at an international school, or obtained a high school diploma from the US.

It is also important to remember, points out Nicola Hijlkema, vice rector for international relations at the Estonian Business School (Hijlkema, 2010), that English is not the only international language.

For example, some schools in Spain teach mainly in Spanish, but have a student body that includes students from all over the Spanish speaking world. Using the criterion of diversity, they are more international than a school which teaches in English, but has a small smattering of homogenous non-English-speaking students.

International collaborations and partnerships

For many universities in both the developed and developing world, collaborative arrangements with a number of foreign universities offer an excellent way of internationalizing.

For John Wilson, developing strong and deep collaborative relationships in a number of countries is a good way of managing risk.

Putting all one's eggs into one basket is not a good idea, as national regulations may change. On the other hand, a series of relationships, developed slowly but surely over time, are likely to be more sustainable.

Thammasat Business School now has over 50 partner universities from all over the world with whom it has exchange agreements (students study there for a semester, obtaining transferable credits for the classes they take). These universities include the Universities of Southern California, University of Minnesota and Ohio State University in the US, University of St Gallen in Switzerland, Rouen Business School in France, Bocconi University in Italy, Singapore Management University, and the University of New South Wales in Australia. Once these contacts are sufficiently mature, exchanges are arranged at faculty level with the objective of nurturing research collaboration.

Both parties genuinely benefit: the universities from the developed countries gain comparatively risk-free exposure to foreign markets, while those from emerging economies get Western input, and a chance to exploit their own expertise.

Tsinghua University, as part of its detailed strategy to become a world-class university, has worked with multiple international partners on an eight-year study, "Theory and practice of first-class universities". It borrowed expertise from the UK's University of Reading to open a student learning and development centre (Baty, 2009b).

Stellenbosch Business School started to internationalize ten years ago, much faster than the main university due to the demands of an international MBA. At first, students all over the world would come on exchange visits for a few modules, and now the school has partnerships with 70 business schools. It is particularly renowned for its excellence in areas such as diversity management, and students come from all over the world for executive courses in these areas.

A common pattern for such partnerships is that students still obtain their degrees from the main university at which they are studying, but get credit for studies prior to or as part of the exchange programme.

Salford Business School is seeking to build on the work done by the University as a whole in China by establishing arrangements such that students undertaking particular postgraduate (PG) study in specific institutions in China may be granted advanced standing on two Salford PG programmes. Undergraduate students may also get credit from study abroad, depending on the arrangement with the partnering institution.

In the above case, the degree is taught by and at the host university. Some universities are exporting whole programmes, using their partnership arrangement to take products to students on their native soil.

The MIT-China Management Education Project (see was established in 1996 as an alliance between MIT and several Chinese universities, with the objective of improving Chinese management education. English is the official language for all teaching and assessment on the international MBA. By June 2009, more than 2,500 young men and women had graduated from the international MBA programme, their employment prospects greatly enhanced by their command of English and their international awareness.

Such programmes involve greater risk for the host university, which needs to guarantee the quality of the teaching by non-home-grown faculty. The degree awarding university needs to set up the necessary quality assurance procedures, and provide considerable teaching input, including sending its own faculty out to teach, and providing mentoring to faculty at the partner institution.

Chinese faculty are brought to MIT Sloan for training in teaching and course development. Students from MIT go to China to talk about aspects of the workplace such as leadership, team building, etc. which are not usually covered in the Chinese curriculum; and administrators also get the chance to come to Cambridge to discuss their functions with their American counterparts.


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