Internationalisation refers broadly to the inclusion of international and intercultural elements across the full range of higher education activities and services. This often focuses on teaching and learning provisions, including internationalised curricula and pedagogies, but also impacts the recruitment of international students (and their subsequent support), provisions for study abroad, intercultural social opportunities on campus, or opportunities for online collaborations across geographic borders (among others). In recent decades, internationalisation has become a strategic focus for many universities around the world, influencing (and in some cases, pressuring) changes in practices and services.
Our literature review has synthesised over 600 research publications written by global authors in the last 10 years about different facets of internationalisation, focusing specifically on whether and how internationalisation demonstrably impacts students’ outcomes and experiences. We wanted to answer the simple question: what is internationalisation actually doing for students’ higher education experiences?
The findings identified 11 broad thematic categories in the research literature about internationalisation, which we evaluated for the degree to which they provided evidence for impacts on students. We found that, despite massive sector shifts towards internationalisation and a flourishing of research about the topic over the last few decades, there has been limited focus on evidencing what works. Simply put, relatively little is known on a sector scale about how to best develop internationalisation in a way that makes a demonstrable impact on students’ learning and experiences.
A key reason for this is that, for many of the thematic categories we identified, research often remains exploratory or descriptive in nature, with a smaller number of studies designed to evaluate demonstrable impacts on students. Most research about internationalisation also focuses within single classrooms or contexts (often within the teaching practice of the researcher). Altogether, we found few cross-contextual or multidisciplinary studies which demonstrated how individual efforts for internationalisation might be scaled up or transferred to other institutions.
Yet, we did identify several common characteristics of internationalisation efforts which did demonstrate impacts on students’ outcomes or experiences. A key takeaway message is that the greatest impact is shown when teaching and learning provisions are purposefully developed to centre internationalisation through transformative and holistic (re-)designs of pedagogy, curricula, assessment, support provisions, and extracurricular activities, rather than simply “adding in” international topics or events. Typically, this involved active and experiential learning, reflection, collaboration, and explicit instruction in intercultural competencies. Other important steps included explicitly scaffolding intercultural skills and embedding intercultural social opportunities within campus environments.
We also identified the ways that internationalisation, to be most effective, should align with wider projects towards campus inclusion. Evidence shows that internationalisation is most impactful when it is designed through learning and campus environments which give value to diversity, and through curriculum, pedagogy, and structures that challenge ethnocentrism, xenophobia and racism. Therefore, the tendency to see internationalisation as separate from equality and diversity initiatives on campus ultimately limits its potential.
A call to action
Our literature review outlined that there are excellent internationalisation initiatives being developed at higher education institutions around the world. However, particularly in the area of teaching and learning, these tended to be driven by the values of individual staff members, rather than through strategic focusing and resourcing from their institutions. This means that, across the sector, more work is needed to focus internationalisation strategies not just on research processes and the recruitment of international students, but also on developing social learning opportunities and the purposeful development of students’ intercultural competencies. This, we argue, means a re-centring of pedagogies, curricula and social engagement in discussions and strategies about internationalisation.
Our findings also highlighted the need for more ongoing research about how internationalisation efforts impact students. Research so far has provided a good foundation for understanding the complexities of internationalisation and international students’ general experiences. Internationalisation is also well theorised as an added value to higher education experiences. However, there is a need to scale up research designs beyond individual classrooms to develop greater knowledge about evidence-based approaches which might be transferred or adapted within and between institutions and contexts. This means more funding and resources are needed for larger-scale research designs on this topic.
Finally, we argue that internationalisation is fundamentally intertwined with equality and diversity work on higher education campuses. Xenophobia, racism, stereotyping and prejudices are significant barriers to meaningful internationalisation, impacting students’ experiences and relationships with one another. Therefore, an authentically internationalised campus must be one that centres inclusion and includes international students in such efforts. This also links with the different ways that institutions may be considering equality and diversity in learning and teaching, whether movements towards an inclusive curriculum, anti-racism, and/or decolonisation. For instance, former colonial ties influence international student mobility flows and coloniality may lead to the uneven valuing of some students’ knowledge adding more precedence for institutions to see internationalisation and any efforts at decolonisation as fundamentally separate, but nevertheless intertwined, issues.
In summary, we hope that the findings encourage readers to ask: what is internationalisation actually doing for students? How might practices be limited? And how can we make internationalisation better, more ethical and more transformative?
The full report is available for Advance HE members: Internationalisation and students’ outcomes or experiences: A review of the literature 2011-2021
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Dr Jenna Mittelmeier is Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, where her research focuses on the internationalisation of higher education and practices with international students. She is the Research in Context editor for Journal of International Students and lead editor for the upcoming volume “Research with International Students” (Routledge). Jenna is on Twitter at @JLMittelmeier.
Dr Sylvie Lomer is a Senior Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the Institute of Education at the University of Manchester. She has worked in international higher education for over a decade, with a research interest in international students and policy. This began during study abroad and continued as a teacher of international students, in pathway colleges and Learning Development. She has published on national branding of UK higher education, policy analysis, and blended learning. Her first book from Palgrave is entitled “Recruiting international students in higher education: Rationales and representations in British policy.” Read https://internationalpedagogies.home.blog/ and follow @SE_Lomer on Twitter.
Said Al Furqani is a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Manchester. His research interest revolves around the area of internationalisation of Higher Education, and particularly researching both policy and practice of internationalisation in the Global South. He is a qualitative researcher, and his work takes a critical perspective on knowledge construction and power. Said is on Twitter at @said_farqani
Daian Huang is a Postgraduate Researcher in Education at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on the internationalisation of higher education and international students’ experiences. Daian is on Twitter at @DaianHuang