International students have been a growing demographic at Canadian universities, which have become increasingly dependent on the fees they pay. Has the pandemic given us an opportunity to re-examine our approach to international student education?

For the past few decades, higher education institutions throughout Canada have declared internationalization a priority. In the academic literature, internationalization most often refers to a process of integrating international and global perspectives into all aspects of higher education, including teaching and research. A core assumption is that internationalization is a process of organizational change, meaning that universities and colleges have strategic plans, working groups, and indicators that monitor progress.

Since 2018, I have been researching how postsecondary institutions strategize and enact internationalization. With a team of graduate students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, we have collected over 100 internationalization strategies from colleges and universities around the world, including 23 from Canadian universities and 11 from Canadian public colleges. We analyzed the strategies to understand what activities are marked as priorities and what values and justifications undergird those activities.

Throughout the strategies we examined, internationalization was portrayed as useful primarily for the benefits it confers to individuals and institutions. I call this instrumental internationalization because it reduces the purpose of internationalization to revenue, rankings, and reputation—preferably all three. However, having reflected on the future of internationalization in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would like to propose an alternative vision for internationalization that moves beyond the instrumental organizational-change approach.

Instrumental internationalization

At its most basic level, internationalization is often equated with the recruitment of international students, who pay substantially higher fees than domestic students. These fees constitute an important revenue source for public institutions in an era of rising costs and stagnant provincial funding levels.

Internationalization also entails integrating international perspectives into curricula and academic programs; supporting study abroad; and pursuing international research and partnerships. Collectively, these practices constitute an institutional project that seeks to transform the university into a global actor with influence that transcends its local community and national borders.

These activities are typically justified in educational terms: that is, to educate students for global understanding and awareness in an interconnected global economy and society. In our analysis of internationalization strategies, the top-mentioned rationale was “diversity.” The basic assumption is that by recruiting diverse international students, we will ensure that domestic students are competent workers and informed citizens in increasingly diverse societies.

The basic assumption is that by recruiting diverse international students, we will ensure that domestic students are competent workers and informed citizens in increasingly diverse societies.

This approach is self-interested, with internationalization being pursued because it increases our profile in the world and, hopefully, enhances the education provided to domestic students. As a result, this approach has long been criticized for being neoliberal, utilitarian, and dehumanizing.

In our research on internationalization as an organizational activity, we found that achieving “successful internationalization” required meeting specific targets and impact indicators. For example, effective internationalization is often associated with the number of nationalities on campus, which reduces internationalization to “more and better coverage of the world.” Colleges and universities identify a specific percentage of international students who should come from key “markets” (language that equates students with investments).

Student recruitment mostly focuses on Asia, including China and India, with much less attention to other parts of the world. When other regions of the world are discussed, particularly countries in Africa, they are often framed as recipients of international development, rather than sources of knowledge or expertise.

Many Canadian institutions champion equity and accessibility for domestic studentsbut charge exorbitant tuition to international students.

Our analysis also found striking absences. It may be hard to believe now, but virtual forms of internationalization were entirely missing from pre-2020 strategies. Additionally, there was almost no discussion of values, such as equity, justice, humility, or solidarity that might shape a re-envisioned internationalization. Further, there were very few connections made to other institutional initiatives. In particular, mentions of Indigenous peoples and knowledge; equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI); and sustainability were rare. Indeed, many Canadian institutions champion equity and accessibility for domestic students but charge exorbitant tuition to international students with very little scholarship aid. These practices not only reproduce great wealth inequalities in the world but create conditions for students studying in Canada that make them vulnerable to sex work, housing precarity, and food scarcity.

Concerns with this instrumental internationalization were apparent long before COVID, and, even before 2020, many institutions were beginning to re-think their approaches to internationalization. However, the pandemic created an immediate shock that accelerated many of these trends and has forced us to rethink the status quo. 

The catalytic impact of the pandemic

In 2020, many countries, including Canada, closed their borders. Although the suspension of in-person classes was disruptive to all students, the extended border closures had a dramatic impact on internationalization activities. Citizenship status became an important factor in individuals’ experiences. Many international students were stuck in Canada, unable to travel to countries where their families lived. Many international students were isolated or stuck in precarious housing situations. Many others were also targeted by rising xenophobia, which hit East Asian students particularly hard.

Over the past year, I have worked with a team of researchers at OISE, the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, and the International Association of Universities on a SSHRC-funded project titled “The Future of Internationalization.” Our first goal is to synthesize the literature on how COVID has affected the internationalization of higher education around the world.

Four themes emerged:

  • First, consistent with an instrumental approach, changes in individuals’ ability to move across borders was a focus. Publications expressed substantial concerns about whether institutions in recruiting countries such as Canada, the US, and the UK would maintain international student enrollments throughout the pandemic and what the impact on revenues would be.
  • Second, there was clear recognition that the COVID-19 pandemic would have an uneven impact on institutions and students. The full consequences of this are still unknown, as are the long-term impacts of entrenching hierarchies in Canadian higher education. Yet, long-standing global inequalities have also been altered. Digital tools have made some forms of collaboration possible in ways that were impossible before, due to the need for visas and cost barriers.
  • Third, many studies we examined documented how international students, like their domestic peers, faced discrimination and isolation while their mental health and well-being suffered. Although students throughout Canada faced similar challenges, international students’ identities as non-nationals often created distinct difficulties and pressures, given their visa status, limitations on their employment, and their inability to travel home.
  • A final trend worth noting is how the pandemic catalyzed geopolitical concerns that had been playing out previously. Geopolitics have now entered internationalization in new ways, and new inequalities have emerged, mapped onto access to fast and affordable Internet, free from censorship.

Charting the path forward

As we emerge from the past two years—changed in many ways—we have an opportunity to reflect critically on our approach to internationalization. I recall the hardest moments of the pandemic—borders were closed and we were socially distanced and isolated from one another. It deprived us of many forms of human connection that we had taken for granted, even while showing us the ways in which we were profoundly linked across borders. Internationalization has parallels to this dual nature of the pandemic. Our postsecondary institutions do an impressive job creating ways for people from around the world to communicate with each other, whether on physical campuses or in virtual spaces. However, fostering deep and meaningful human connections among these individuals, who have different backgrounds and worldviews, is a much more difficult challenge.

In light of the limitations of instrumental internationalization, my question for postsecondary educators and leaders is: How can we redefine and reimagine what counts as internationalization? In answering this question, I suggest that, by transforming how we understand internationalization, we can begin to change what we think and do in its name.

Internationalization does not need to be thought of as a rationalized strategic activity that primarily benefits the institution in concrete ways. It should be more than a set of quantified organizational activities with outcomes. Global understanding cannot be narrowly defined as acquiring knowledge, skills, or competencies. It must involve more than implementing a checklist of activities or organizational practices.

Accordingly, I view internationalization as a personal commitment to reflecting on how our actions, as we live and work in Canada, have unknown ripple effects around the world. A reimagined internationalization requires educating students to be interested, humble, empathetic, and responsible for our interconnected pasts, presents, and futures. This focus on attributes and reflective action, rather than knowledge acquisition and organizational activity, is a redefinition of how internationalization is understood and practiced by many. But, this re-definition is needed.

All indications suggest that our institutions will remain focused on international student recruitment post-pandemic, seeking to diversify students’ nationalities to mitigate financial risk. However, we can all do more individually—in our classrooms and professional roles—to align our own practices, interactions, and relationships within the domains where we work to a non-instrumental approach to internationalization.

When we conceptualize the goal of international student recruitment as an opportunity to invest in the future potential of those who have not benefited from generations of accumulated privilege, we can come up with creative ways to make international student tuition more equitable. For example, one possibility involves providing scholarship packages to students who studied at public schools in countries in lower and middle-income countries. Another includes calculating a reasonable family contribution, as is done in many universities in the United States. When we stop thinking of international student recruitment as being primarily about revenue and reputation, we can find new ways to re-commit to bringing those most affected by conflict and disruption, including refugee students and displaced scholars, to our campuses.

Similarly, instead of being an instrumental project that is primarily revenue-generating and reputation-enhancing—skewing our treatment of students—we can centre relationships of care as a guiding principle for internationalization. We can appreciate our students’ multifaceted identities, address the stereotypes and racism many face, and view supporting mental health as everyone’s responsibility. Leaders can commit to providing faculty, staff, and international student advisors with the tools, resources, and training they need to take on these expanded roles.

When we stop viewing internationalization as a stand-alone project, isolated from other institutional priorities, such as EDI and sustainability, we can begin creating integrated programs and plans. We can begin to map out an agenda for internationalization that addresses the hegemony of Western and Eurocentric ways of thinking and resource extraction that are fundamentally unsustainable. One very small step in this direction is to reflect on knowledge production in our disciplines and research: We can look at our syllabi and ask ourselves if we are assigning readings by scholars outside of North America and Europe, and if not, why not? We can individually begin to challenge the Eurocentrism that positions Europe and North America as the world’s primary sources of knowledge and progress. We can also begin to more seriously calculate the carbon footprint of international travel and choose more environmentally sustainable options.

Our task as educators in internationalized institutions demands more than preparing students with concrete skills for inter-cultural communication.

When we stop mapping internationalization onto concrete and measurable activities for narrow outcomes, such as intercultural competencies, we can begin educating for the much messier global reality. The world is highly unpredictable—conflict, geopolitical tension, disease, and climate migration all mean that our task as educators in internationalized institutions demands more than preparing students with concrete skills for inter-cultural communication. Rather than viewing internationalization as acquiring skills, we can, instead, view internationalization as preparing students to have many of their basic assumptions questioned and to be comfortable with ambiguity and change.

In this way, we can imbue our internationalization activities with a greater sense of purpose—beyond self-interest and instrumentalism, we can re-think internationalization in terms of our impact on the world.

Elizabeth Buckner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.