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The internationalization of higher education – Instalment 2

By Margaret Adolphus

Creating a global brand

Instalment 1 of "The internationalization of higher education" considered how most universities are seeking to be international players in response to the demands of globalization.

Most do this by attracting students from abroad, by offering "international" elements in their curricula and classes in English, and through partnerships. However, a few institutions consciously seek to define themselves as "global universities". But what does this mean?

Dr David Pilsbury, chief executive of World Universities Network, a network of 15 research-intensive universities across five continents, believes that the notion of a "global university" is as yet ill-defined (Pilsbury et al., 2007). And John Wilson, head of Salford Business School in the UK, maintains that the term "globalization" is better applied to the world economy, and prefers to talk about universities being "international".

Some universities are consciously at the top of the league; global players by virtue of their continuing reputation. For them, being "international" may refer to the inevitable bias which comes from responding to globalization within their curriculum and research, and their ability to attract students and faculty from all over the world.

Speaking at a conference on globalization, Eric Thomas, vice chancellor of the University of Bristol, listed the requirements for an international university, which included:

  • "brand promotion" in major disciplines,
  • "excellence throughout" including finances, administration, governance and leadership,
  • an undergraduate curriculum that prepares students for a global world,
  • working with global companies (Morgan, 2010).

Research powerhouses

Instalment 1 alluded to ways in which the curriculum is being internationalized (see the section on "Creating the international experience at home"). Arguably, the most important factor in a global university is its research reputation. In this area, more and more universities are developing partnerships across institutions, countries and even continents, to address global problems.

For example, "Development impacts of climate narratives" is a programme which looks at the impact of climate change on poorer communities (see The main universities involved are the Universities of Cape Town, Bergen, Bristol, and Washington, Seattle.

Research partnerships do not just relate to "modern problems" – potentially less fashionable disciplines can receive a boost from the multiple disciplinary perspectives that many partners can bring, and hence attract more funding.

See, for example, CARMEN (the Co-operative for the Advancement of Research through a Medieval European Network) which is a worldwide network of organizations involved in research on the Middle Ages, the main partners being the universities of York, Bergen, Bristol, and Western Australia. This collaboration brings together arts, social and natural sciences, and aims to deliver global impact.

The common factor is a combination of excellence.

Creating a physical presence

A few universities are using physical presence to create a global brand, establishing portal or satellite campuses in other countries. To date this has mostly been in the Middle East and East Asia.

Take, for example, the University of Nottingham, which claims that,

" ... internationalization is at the heart of everything we do as a university".

It is certainly in the top tier – Nottingham was positioned 91st in the 2009 QS/Times Higher Education university rankings.

However, what caused it to be named, in 2006, higher education institution of the year by the UK's Times Higher Education was the fact that it had opened campuses in China and Malaysia.

Such developments are often welcomed by the receiving country. They mean that students can have an American/British education without leaving their own country, with all its cost implications and having to come to terms with a foreign culture.

Initiatives such as the Qatar Foundation help the countries that sponsor them to develop rapidly by importing educational resources from abroad, and combining them with their own systems to build a blend which includes the best of both.

Education City is the Qatar Foundation's flagship project. Here students can study medicine at Cornell, international affairs at Georgetown, computer science and business at Carnegie Mellon, fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth, and engineering at Texas A&M.
The above examples involve a single school or faculty. What differentiates initiatives such as that of Nottingham is its comprehensiveness.

Nottingham has created not just a single school, but an entire replica university, offering "the Nottingham experience" in China and Malaysia, with the same system of quality assurance as in the UK. The China campus in Ningbo even has the same signature architectural feature, the tall tower, as in the English campus.

In both cases, teaching and research reflect the concerns of the host countries: for example, in China, a research centre has been developed which looks at zero carbon and sustainable building technologies.

Image: Photo of Nottingham's Ningbo campus.

Nottingham's Ningbo campus

New York University, under its entrepreneurial president John Sexton, is well on the way to a similar expansion. Calling itself the "Global Network University", and claiming that "no university has greater global presence" (New York University, 2010), it has ten study-abroad centres in four continents, and more in the pipeline.

NYU Abu Dhabi will open in September 2010, offering a broad liberal arts programme and a full research university. It claims that admission will be highly competitive, and that faculty will include Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners (Hechinger, 2010), so standards will be maintained. Further plans are afoot for a campus in China.

Universities that create a global presence through real estate as well as through research, faculty, curriculum and reputation, are a phenomenon, not a template: they represent one, not the, model for a global university, despite the advantages of the arrangement to both themselves and the host country.

New York University, for example, is 52nd in the world rankings, a very respectable position (although it was criticized by Business Week for its low proportion of full-time faculty and high level of student debt), but it is number 11 in donations to US colleges. By 2007, Sexton had already raised over $3 billion, and he plans to raise a similar amount to improve the New York campus. The Abu Dhabi branch was bank-rolled by the emirate (Hechinger, 2010).

Publisher's note

The author is grateful to the following people for their kind help with this article:

  • Nicola Hijlkema, vice rector for international relations at the Estonian Business School, Estonia.
  • Angela Melley, faculty international student learning officer, Faculty of Law, Business & Social Sciences, University of Glasgow.

Criticisms of internationalism

The costliness of the ventures described in part 1 – not just the real estate, but ensuring that the right faculty are on hand to teach – is enough to make many universities, however high their reputation, hesitate before opening overseas campuses.

However, any attempt to internationalize, even if does not involve real estate, is costly. This is what Nicola Hijlkema, who is currently vice rector for international relations at the Estonian Business School, Estonia, and who has 30 years' experience in the field, is at pains to point out.

Writing in an article in Global Focus Magazine, the European Foundation for Management Development's (EFMD) house magazine, she claims that,

"internationalisation is perhaps the most misunderstood word in the business school world" (Hijlkema, 2010).

For example, not all institutions understand the resource implications: hiring someone to run the international office, and developing a section of the website, are not sufficient, and can be no more than window dressing.

Instead, internationalization requires a clear strategy which involves thinking through students' entire experience, and why they are studying at your institution.

"It's not just a question of getting them in, you have to keep them happy, you have to adapt your curriculum, you may have to change your faculty, you definitely have to change your systems", claims Hijlkema.

Their costliness, and failure to think through resulting in poor quality, have led to a degree of cynicism and criticism.

From the point of view of the recipient, there is the fear that the experience may not be one of cultural exchange, but rather of absorption into a dominant group, or ghettoization.

The University of Hong Kong has undergone a profound programme of internationalization involving the use of experiential learning, adopting English as the lingua franca, and international study or work. However, the implementation of these reforms has faced significant hurdles, for example, Cantonese is still spoken in many social situations, while 80 per cent of the student population is from Hong Kong. In these conditions, international students tend to stick together. One student from South Africa said that although she had chosen Hong Kong because of its international reputation, she knew hardly any Chinese students (Fearn, 2010).

Whether "exporting" students to be educated abroad, or "importing" foreign educational programmes, there are dangers. Educating students abroad risks a brain drain in the donor country if these students do not return. And when Phil Baty (2009a) reported on how India was inviting in foreign providers, several commentators expressed concerns over a resurgence of British colonialism.

From the providers' point of view, some Americans have criticized their universities' overseas programmes as diluting the home offering: arguing the needs of Americans should come first. It is easy to dismiss those comments as xenophobic; however, those who consider the resource implications, and "look before they leap" are perhaps being wise. For example, Columbia University turned down the opportunity of opening a law school in Qatar because of the difficulty of maintaining the quality of faculty and students.

Thus, there is a real fear that intense overseas excursions may result not in increased global brand, but in a lower reputation both at home and abroad.

One of the biggest problems when running programmes abroad is the need to ensure the quality of the faculty. Exporting one's own faculty has its own problems, because commuting can exert a heavy toll on staff.

The first time, it may be exciting, the second time it's nice because you've begun to put down roots, the third time it's more of a chore and after a while people come to resent it because they don't consider teaching on foreign campuses to be their main responsibility.

Business school, INSEAD overcame these problems by recruiting faculty specifically for its Singapore campus, thus eliminating at the start any possible feelings of divided loyalty. This is not, however, a solution that is practical for the majority.

Some recommendations for good practice

What can help international ventures succeed?

Inspirational leaders

Top priority, according to Hijlkema, is to have a "champion" at management level, who not only has a vision of what needs to be done, but who can also ensure that the necessary resources are provided. Where would NYU Abu Dhabi be without the vision of John Sexton, for example?

Also important among faculty are champions to influence by enthusiasm and example, and help dispel resistance.

Cultural sensitivity

Richard Lihua is director of China programmes at Salford Business School, and is a Chinese national and permanent resident of the UK. He believes that some faculty lack cultural sensitivity when dealing with foreign students, and have insufficient knowledge of how to operate business in an international context (visit his interview with Emerald to read his comments). This, however, can be helped by exposure to the culture concerned.

For example, Salford's China Symposium was a university-wide event to capture the full scale of activities in all faculties with colleagues in Chinese universities. One result was that participating faculty gained a fuller cultural understanding which they could then pass on to students.

Other schools have "immersion programmes" for staff, whereby they can travel internationally or undertake projects abroad with the objective of increasing international understanding.

At Robson College in the USA, faculty bursaries of $2,000 to $3,500 are offered to staff so that they can conduct research projects, travel internationally, set up exchange agreements or host speakers.

Teaching materials likewise should reflect local knowledge and circumstances. Textbooks, and that staple of business school education, the case study, tend to be written from an American perspective. Examples from small-to-medium-sized enterprises may be more appropriate in countries without multinational penetration.

Faculty need to be aware of case material that draws on research into other areas of the world, produced by leading business schools such as IESE Business School (Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa), IMD (International Institute for Management Development), INSEAD and CEIBS (China Europe International Business School).

The Global Business School Network, which helps business schools achieve international standards by organizing collaborative partnerships with top global schools, is helping to create locally sourced case studies.

Attention must be paid to culturally inappropriate references. For example, one lecturer at an American university produced slides suggesting use of the term "partner" or "life partner" as less exclusive than "husband" or "wife". However, in the Arabian desert, where homosexual acts are illegal, this was met with a different reaction to that on the campus where it was originally used (Lewin, 2008).

Buy-in from administrative and support staff

However important teaching faculty and materials are, there is a need to think beyond the classroom to students' entire requirements on campus. Do the administrative and support staff, particularly in those departments involved with student support, have sufficient cultural sensitivity and language skills, and the experience or imagination to know what it must be like to be away from home?

Hijlkema believes that,

"we have to go down into the depths of what they want and what they need".

This may be difficult if the predominant culture is one of fear of intrusion into private problems. However, simply by virtue of being away from their home environment, international students are likely to need more support, not less.

Angela Melley, faculty international student learning officer at the Faculty of Law, Business & Social Sciences, University of Glasgow, also emphasizes the importance of sensitivity and cultural awareness on the part of support staff, pointing out that up to 50 per cent of student contact can be with this group.

Some universities offer extensive social programmes for the benefit of their overseas' students. One college near London ran an international club and regularly took students away for walking trips at weekends. Hijlkema herself, when she was based at a business school in Barcelona, used to invite all foreign students to her flat for a cocktail party each semester.

Where a different lingua franca is used, thought needs to be given to all who will come into contact with the students. Take the restaurant: is the menu translated and can students understand the waitresses?

Another thorny issue can be admissions: some institutions, under pressure to increase numbers, unwittingly admit students who are inadequately skilled in the language of instruction, and who are shunned by their peers for group work.

Being specific about requirements when dealing with partnering organizations, and interviewing as opposed to taking students in bulk, helps.

At Estonian Business School, a member of staff with considerable experience of China now interviews Chinese students and gives them a language test. As a result, fewer, but better students are admitted.

Another approach is to give preparatory language classes to bring the students up to speed.

Cultural awareness training

Some institutions in the UK are instigating cultural awareness programmes, in an effort to improve the experience of overseas students.

Angela Melley has given training in cultural awareness in a London college and is now based at the University of Glasgow. She encourages staff to look beyond the less obvious aspects of culture such as language, dress, etc. to issues such as learning styles, values, attitude to work, task planning, money, body language, motivation, patterns of interpersonal relationships, and so on. Such awareness can inform teaching styles.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKISA) publishes useful cultural awareness training resources: these can be found at Melley particularly recommends the cross-cultural training manual (Lago and Bart, 2003).

The following key strategies are recommended in a handout which Melley provided for attendees at staff development sessions at West Thames College in London. They apply particularly to those for whom English is a second language and are summarized below:

  • Structure of the class should be clear and logical; include signposting, explaining what is to come and summarizing what has been completed; cross-refer to other sources and to what has previously been covered.
  • Aids – provide information on aims, objectives, etc., also key vocabulary and a glossary of frequently used terms, and visual material to complement spoken and written input; repeat oral instructions and have these in writing as a back-up.
  • Questions – encourage these, and help students to practise asking questions; when asking questions yourself, explain what sort of answer you are looking for i.e. right/wrong, opinion, etc.; use directed questions at named students if you feel that someone is not participating fully in the class.
  • Environment – generate a warm, friendly atmosphere; politely explain acceptable classroom behaviour (e.g. requesting rather than demanding teacher's attention); always speak clearly; in pair work, combine native and non-native speakers, but be aware that some students may not be used to it; offer praise; use humour to break down barriers.
  • Assessment – encourage writing early on, so that you can assess what help may be needed; clearly explain marking criteria both verbally and in writing.
  • Team teaching – covertly observe any team teaching partner so that you can see whether you have the same, or different, issues with the group

Another strategy is to develop intranet banks of information from staff and students describing their own cross-cultural experiences – these can also be used to generate material for teaching, training, marketing and so on.


Discussing the internationalization of higher education in the context of protectionists' fears, American commentator Ben Wildavsky makes the following observation (Wildavsky, 2010):

"... the globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared. The worldwide competition for human talent, the race to conduct innovative research, the push to extend university campuses to multiple countries, and the rush to produce knowledgeable and creative graduates who can strengthen increasingly knowledge-based economies – all of those trends are hugely beneficial to the entire world".

Wildavsky goes on to point out that the concept of the brain drain, the loss of talent to a country which provides greater rewards, needs to be replaced with that of brain circulation and brain growth: as people circulate, so does knowledge, with the possibility of stimulating the global knowledge economy.

We are living not only in a global knowledge economy, but also a global marketplace for talent, which includes universities. In 2009, an estimated three million students attended universities abroad, an increase of 57 per cent since 1999 (Knowles, 2010).

In this situation, it is vital that universities educate people with a global perspective and the skill to be able to accommodate to another culture.

There are many different ways of achieving this goal: some encourage student mobility through exchanges, while others nurture international research collaborations, and yet others seek to be physically global by having campuses on foreign soil.

Internationalization is best done by thinking strategically about one's goals and the resources needed to achieve them. There are a number of different options, but what isn't an option is to ignore the world which creates the need for internationalization in the first place.


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Further resources

Useful reports on international higher education are published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education – see