International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

RSS FeedDitching the dichotomies in international HE

Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Commonality, not difference

Ditching the dichotomiesWhen it comes to international higher education, we are very fond of putting things in boxes and framing them in terms of dichotomies.

  • International students vs. domestic students.
  • ‘Sending’ countries vs. ‘receiving’ countries.
  • TNE students vs. ‘true’ international students.
  • Distance learning vs. ‘standard’ programmes.
  • Internationalisation ‘at home’ vs. internationalisation ‘abroad’.

This desire to categorise can be unhelpful, highlighting differences at a time when the boundaries between many of these categories are becoming increasingly blurred.

The blurring of the boundaries

Both international and domestic students are individuals with a vast range of different backgrounds and life experiences. Their needs cannot be neatly pigeon-holed according to where they come from. The student experience should be inclusive: relevant to all individuals regardless of background. We have surely moved beyond the days when university staff used to distinguish between international students and ‘our own students’ (it makes me cringe just to recall that terminology, which irked me whenever I heard it!).

When it comes to international student recruitment, we used to divide the world up into ‘sending’ countries and ‘receiving’ countries (the latter mostly in the Anglosphere). With new destinations, new partnership models and much greater mobility between countries in the same region (which can be both senders and receivers of international students), this is now a nonsensical distinction.

Within the UK, we tend to distinguish between transnational education students (those studying for a UK institution’s award in another country) and ‘true’ international students (the ones who travel to study at our UK campuses). This may not be a constructive distinction as we increasingly embrace hybrid delivery models that include opportunities to spend time in more than one location. Why should a student who starts a degree in their home country (or a nearby one), then completes it in the UK, be viewed differently from an international student who arrives in the UK in year one of their programme?

Another distinction which – hastened along by the Covid-19 crisis – is increasingly misleading is between distance learning and ‘standard’ programmes. One of the positive by-products of the current crisis is likely to be far more widespread integration of distance / online learning into HE programmes, with blended learning approaches being adopted as a matter of course. As Mary Curnock-Cook pointed out in a recent ApplyBoard webinar, it will start to feel artificial to describe as ‘distance’ learning what is effectively just ‘learning’. An alternative taxonomy would be helpful.

Then there is the juxtaposition of internationalisation ‘abroad’ and internationalisation ‘at home’. The former refers to mobility-based international activities (which are only ever within reach of an elite minority of students, but are seen by many as the holy grail of internationalisation). The latter has at its heart the integration of global (or intercultural) learning experiences into the curriculum – and has the power to reach and benefit all students. However, it is often given much lower priority than mobility-focused activity. This has been compellingly highlighted in recent University World News articles such as Betty Leask’s and Wendy Green’s piece, ‘Is the pandemic a watershed for internationalisation?’.

Making terminology - and behaviours - more inclusive

I appreciate that there are good, sound reasons for trying to categorise certain activities (not least linked to data collection and analysis, which are important).

However, sometimes the very terminology we use encourages us to think in terms of dichotomies.

Emphasising difference then risks clouding our ability to recognise common requirements and to embrace inclusive approaches and behaviours. 

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