By Claire Morel - 25th October 2012
If Europe is to remain highly attractive as a study destination, it must reinforce its efforts to promote global awareness of the high quality and the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of its universities
Internationalisation in higher education can help Europe to boost innovation and job creation, writes Claire Morel
European universities have a positive record of internationalisation via their participation in EU programmes, which has facilitated the development of international curricula, joint degrees, fostered international research and innovation projects, and the exchange of students, staff and knowledge. The internationalisation of higher education enhances the overall quality of European education by allowing for peer learning, cooperation and comparison with other education providers worldwide. Internationalisation boosts innovation and job creation in Europe by attracting international mobility and related skilled migration. Moreover, international experience broadens horizons and prepares students to deal with different people, cultures and languages. It boosts their employability and prepares them to become global citizens.
Overall, the number of higher education students in the world is expected to increase by more than 300 per cent between 2000 and 2030 (from 99 to 414 million), with particularly strong growth in the emerging economies in Asia and Latin America. According to Unesco forecasts, as soon as 2020 there will be some seven million internationally mobile students in the world (four million in 2010) and Europeans will represent a sharply diminishing percentage of the global student population. Although ‘traditional’ host countries are still heavily favoured, the global ‘race for talent’ and the emergence of new ‘knowledge powers’ in Asia, Latin America or the Middle East is shifting the balance of internationalisation from cooperation towards more competition. This presents both challenges and opportunities for European universities. Although Europe remains the preferred destination region for international students, the need for more global cooperation between universities is as pressing as ever.
For decades EU higher education cooperation programmes have played an important role in supporting internationalisation processes: Erasmus has been instrumental in making mass mobility a reality and strengthened the position of European universities in global academic networks. Other EU programmes which are supporting cooperation and exchanges with non-EU countries (e.g. Erasmus Mundus, Tempus, Alfa, Edulink, Marie Curie) have facilitated partnerships between universities and helped to modernise higher education in partner countries. The European commission has proposed to further strengthen these developments from 2014, through the “Erasmus for all” programme. It will, in particular, increase the funding for joint degree programmes between EU universities and those from farther afield. Joint degrees represent a particularly successful aspect of the EU’s international cooperation, based on international networks of excellence for teaching, learning and research, and the emergence of a new and deeper partnership mode. The programme will continue to promote international learning mobility, including to and from non-EU destinations. It will also allow universities to engage in new areas that will have a profound impact on the internationalisation of higher education, like online course delivery and the development of virtual campuses that present significant challenges related to quality assurance, student assessment and recognition, as well as funding.
If Europe is to remain highly attractive as a study destination, it must reinforce its efforts to promote global awareness of the high quality and the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of its universities. This can be done, for example, by reinforcing existing promotion campaigns, such as participating in international student fairs, but also through more innovative channels, such as student and alumni associations acting as ambassadors for EU higher education. A new performance-based ranking and information tool for profiling higher education institutions, aiming to radically improve the transparency of the higher education sector, is under development and will be used to communicate the diversity of European universities.
Another way for the EU to engage with non-EU countries is through international policy dialogue in higher education, which is undertaken by the European commission with a number of key partner countries and regions around the world. This process facilitates international cooperation on the basis of mutual understanding, and is particularly important to address issues like quality assurance and academic recognition, as it is key to the development of international mobility with countries where the degree structure, quality assurance or credit systems are not easily compatible with those of Europe. It also serves to increase the knowledge of European standards and tools (like the European qualification framework, or the principles underlying the Bologna process).
While a great deal of progress can be achieved at EU level, the member states have a direct responsibility for supporting universities in their international strategies. They should be encouraged to develop internationalisation policies that would go beyond mobility and encompass the whole range of internationalisation activities, starting with scholarship programmes, information and promotion measures, to recognition procedures, better international student services, guidance and counselling. An area that needs further support is the concept of ‘internationalisation at home’, to ensure that the majority of students, who are not in a position to study abroad, can nevertheless enjoy the benefits associated with international exposure.
As we can see, there is not a single approach to internationalisation in higher education; it should mean different things to different universities, depending on their context. Nevertheless, European graduates need to be prepared for an increasingly global and competitive economic environment and internationalisation of higher education underpins this preparation. A proactive approach will bring benefits for the sake of Europe, the member states and the individual universities.
Claire Morel is deputy head of unit in charge of international cooperation and programmes at the European commission's DG education and culture