Headlines from recent higher education newspapers paint a colourful picture of some new developments in internationalization—“Ten universities in the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia begin sharing education content on iTunes U.” “China could be vulnerable to ‘education dumping’ by overseas universities seeking to exploit the rapid expansion of higher education in the country.” “European Higher Education Fairs ‘conquer’ Vietnam.”

As we progress into the 21st century, the international dimension of higher education is becoming increasingly important and at the same time, more and more complex. There are new actors, new rationales, new programs, new regulations, and the new context of globalization. Internationalization has become a formidable force for change as evidenced by the following developments and initiatives:

  • The creation of new international networks and consortia
  • The growing numbers of students, professors, and researchers participating in academic mobility schemes
  • The increase in the number of courses, programs, and qualifications that focus on comparative and international themes
  • More emphasis on developing international/intercultural and global competencies
  • Stronger interest in international themes and collaborative research
  • Steep rise in the number of crossborder delivery of academic programs
  • More interest and concern with international and regional rankings of universities
  • An increase in campus-based extracurricular activities with an international or multicultural component
  • The investment in recruiting foreign students and dependence on their income
  • The rise in the number of joint or double degrees
  • Growth in the numbers and types of for-profit crossborder education providers
  • The expansion in partnerships, franchises, branch campuses
  • The establishment of new national, regional, and international organizations focused on international education

As internationalization changes to meet new challenges it is important to examine the key concepts that inform and shape the internationalization process and some of the unexpected developments and results. The multiple and varied benefits attributed to internationalization are acknowledged, but the primary focus here is on the unintended consequences that need to be addressed and monitored.

Confusion and complexity in what internationalization means

Internationalization is a term that means different things to different people. While it is encouraging to see the increased use and attention given to internationalization, there is a great deal of confusion about what it means.

For some people, it means a series of international activities such as: academic mobility for students and teachers; international networks, partnerships and projects; new international academic programs and research initiatives. For others it means the delivery of education to other countries through new arrangements such as branch campuses or franchises using a variety of face-to-face and distance techniques. To many, it means the inclusion of an international, intercultural and/or global dimension into the curriculum and teaching learning process. Still others see internationalization as a means to improve national or world rankings of their institution and to recruit the best and brightest of international students and scholars. International development projects have traditionally been perceived as part of internationalization, and, more recently, the increasing emphasis on trade in higher education is also seen as internationalization. Finally, there is frequent confusion about the relationship of internationalization and globalization. Is internationalization the same as globalization? If so, why, how, and to what end? If not, how is it different or what is the relationship between these two dynamic processes? Thus internationalization is interpreted and used in different ways in Canada and countries around the world.

A changing agenda?

In addition to questions about what exactly does it mean, there are other important issues being raised about internationalization. Questions such as: What is the purpose for internationalization? What are the expected benefits or outcomes? What are the values that underpin it? What are, the positive consequences? What are the unintended results? What are the negative implications? What about new risks attached to internationalization? How are institutions and policy makers responding to the competing interests within the domain of internationalization? What are the funding implications? How are governments and non-governmental organizations addressing the issue and moving forward? Are for-profit and non-profit internationalization strategies compatible? Does internationalization have a role in the brain drain, homogenization/hybridization of culture, and international labour mobility? Clearly, there are important issues and questions to address. As the internationalization agenda changes, it requires close scrutiny.

Defining Internationalization

Internationalization is not a new term, nor is the debate over its meaning. Internationalization has been used for years in political science and governmental relations, but its popularity in the education sector has soared only since the early 1980s. Prior to this time, “international education” and “international cooperation” were favoured terms and still are in some countries. In the 1990s, the discussion centred on differentiating “international education” from such overlapping terms as “comparative education,” “global education,” and “multi-cultural education.” But today, the nuances of meaning among “crossborder,” “transnational,” “borderless,” and “international” modes of education are more important and causing much confusion.

The challenging part of developing a definition is the need for it to be generic enough to apply to many different countries, cultures, and education systems. This is no easy task. While it is not the intention to develop a universal definition, it is imperative that it can be used in a broad range of contexts and for comparative purposes across countries and regions of the world. With this in mind, it is important to ensure that a definition does not specify the rationales, benefits, outcomes, actors, activities, and stakeholders of internationalization as they vary enormously across nations and from institution to institution. What is critical is that the international dimension relates to all aspects of education and the role that it plays in society. Internationalization at national/sector/ institutional levels is defined as “the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of higher education. ”

This is intentionally a neutral definition of internationalization. Many would argue that the process of internationalization should be described in terms of improving quality and relevance of higher education, promoting cooperation and solidarity among nations, or advancing research on international issues. While these are noble intentions, and internationalization can contribute to these goals, a definition needs to be objective enough that it can be used to describe a phenomenon which is in fact, universal, but which has different purposes and outcomes, depending on the actor or stakeholder.

A significant development in the conceptualization of internationalization in the last five years has been the introduction of the terms “internationalization at home” and “crossborder education”. Campus-based strategies are most often referred to as internationalization “at home” and offcampus initiatives are called “crossborder education”. As a result of a heightened emphasis on international academic mobility, the “at home” concept has been developed to give greater prominence to campus-based elements such as: the intercultural and international dimension in the teaching learning process, research; extra-curricular activities; relationships with local cultural and ethnic community groups; as well as the integration of foreign students and scholars into campus life and activities. It is important to point out that internationalization consists of these two separate but closely-linked and interdependent pillars. Crossborder education has significant implications for campus-based internationalization and vice versa. Interestingly enough, many of the new developments and unintended consequences are associated with the crossborder aspects of internationalization.

The complexities and challenges related to academic and professional mobility should not be underestimated.

New Developments and Unintended consequences


Little did we know 25 years ago that the highly-valued and promoted international academic mobility for students, scholars, and professors would have the potential to grow into a highly-competitive international recruitment business. Several countries are investing in major marketing campaigns to attract the best and brightest talent to study and work in their institutions in order to supply the “brain power” for innovation and research agendas. The complexities and challenges related to academic and professional mobility should not be underestimated. Nor should the potential benefits. But it is impossible to ignore the latest race for attracting international students and academics for “brain power” and for “income generation”. The original goal of helping students from developing countries study in another country to complete a degree and return home is fading fast as nations compete for retaining needed human resources.

While “brain drain and brain gain” are well known concepts, research is showing that international students and researchers are increasingly interested in taking a degree in country A, followed by a second degree or perhaps internship in country B, leading to employment in country C and probably D, finally returning to their home country after eight to 12 years of international study and work experience. Hence, the emergence of the term “brain train”. In the final analysis, whether one is dealing with brain gain, brain drain, brain train or even brain chain, this phenomenon is presenting benefits, risks, and new challenges for both sending and receiving countries. From a policy perspective, higher education is becoming a more important actor and is now working in closer collaboration with immigration, industry, and the science and technology sectors to build an integrated strategy for attracting and retaining knowledge workers. The convergence of an aging society, lower birth rates, the knowledge economy, and professional labour mobility is introducing new issues and opportunities for the higher education sector and producing some unanticipated results and challenges in terms of international mobility.


It is forecast that by 2025 the demand for international education will grow to 7. 2 million students—a quantum leap from 1.2 million students in 2000. Some, but certainly not all of this demand, will be met by student mobility. Consequently, the number of new providers—commercial companies and nongovernmental entities—delivering programs to students in their home countries is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. It is no longer just students, faculty, and researchers who are internationally mobile. Full academic degree/diploma programs are being delivered across borders, and branch campuses or new, stand alone institutions are being established in developing and developed countries around the world.

While these new developments are intended to increase access to higher education and meet the appetite for foreign credentials, there are serious issues related to the quality of the academic offer, the integrity of the new types of providers, and the recognition of credentials. The increase in the number of foreign degree mills (selling “parchment”-only degrees) and accreditation mills (selling bogus accreditations for programs or institutions), and rogue for-profit providers (not recognized by national authorities) are realities that students, parents, employers, and the academic community now need to aware of. Who would have guessed two decades ago that international education would be struggling to deal with fake degrees and accreditations; that is, academic credentials that are earned but not recognized and nonregulated “fly by night” institutions. Of course, it is equally important to acknowledge innovative developments by bona fide new providers and traditional universities who are delivering high quality programs and legitimate degrees through new types of arrangements and partnerships (franchise, twinning, branch campuses). The perpetual issue of balancing cost, quality and access significantly challenges the benefits and risks of crossborder education.


Improvement in the quality of research, the teaching/learning process, and curriculum has long been heralded as a positive outcome of international collaboration. Through exchange of good practice, shared curricular reform, close research cooperation, and mobility of professors/students, there is much to be gained through internationalization. A recent trend has been the establishment of joint programs between institutions in different countries that lead to double (or multiple degrees) and in some cases a joint degree, although the latter faces steep legal constraints. Joint programs are intended to provide a rich international and comparative academic experience for students and to improve their opportunities for employment. But with all new ideas, come questionable adaptations and unintended consequences. For instance, in some cases, double degrees can be nothing more than double counting one set of course credits. Situations exist where two or three credentials (one from each participating institution) are conferred for little more than the work load required for one degree. While it may be very attractive for students (and potential employees) to have two degrees from two institutions in two different countries, the situation can be described as academic fraud if course requirements for two full degrees are not completed or differentiated learning outcomes not achieved. It is important to point out that there are many excellent and innovative joint and double degree programs being offered—especially by European institutions given the priority they are given in the Bologna process. But one of the unanticipated consequences has been the misuse or abuse of this new internationalization initiative. More work on the quality assurance and credential recognition of double degrees is necessary because they span two or more jurisdictions and can be exempt from any national regulations.

Commodification and Commercialization: For-profit Internationalization

While the process of internationalization affords many benefits to higher education, it is clear that there are serious risks associated with this complex and growing phenomenon. According to the results of the 2005 International Association of Universities (IAU) Internationalization Survey, there is overwhelming agreement (96 per cent of responding institutions from 95 countries) that internationalization brings benefits to higher education. Yet, this consensus is qualified by the fact that 70 per cent also believe there are substantial risks associated with the international dimension of higher education.

Overall, the number one risk identified in the survey was the commodification and commercialization of education programs. Of interest is that both developing and developed countries identified commercialization as the number one risk, convincing testimony of its importance. A regional level analysis showed that four regions (Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America) ranked commercialization as the top risk. Latin America placed brain drain as number one, and the Middle East ranked loss of cultural identify in first place.

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) has been a wake-up call for higher education around the world. Higher education has traditionally been seen as a “public good” and a “social responsibility.” But with the advent of this new international trade agreement, higher education has become a tradable commodity, or, more precisely in GATS terms, an internationally tradable service. Many see GATS as presenting new opportunities and benefits, while others see it as introducing serious risks. In addition, there are many who question why the trade sector needs to impose regulations at all, given that the education sector has been using its own agreements and conventions for decades.

At the heart of the debate for many educators is the impact of increased commercial crossborder education on the purpose, role, and values of higher education. The growth in new commercial and private providers, the commodification and market orientation of education, and the prospect of new trade policy frameworks are catalysts for stimulating serious reflection on the role, social commitment, and funding of public higher education institutions in society. The trinity of teaching, research, and service to society has traditionally guided the evolution of the university and its contribution to the social, cultural, human, scientific, and economic development of a nation and its people. Is the combination of these roles still valid, or can they be disaggregated and rendered by different providers?

Finally, an unknown consequence is the impact of commercialization on the motivation for institutions to internationalize. One of the leading rationales at the institutional level for internationalization is preparing graduates to be internationally knowledgeable and interculturally skilled to live and work in more culturally diverse communities both at home and abroad. An important question to ask is how an increased emphasis on the “buying and selling” of education across borders will affect the nature and priority given to academic, social, and cultural rationales of non-profit international education activities.

Cultural Diversity or Homogenization?

The impact of new forms and types of international academic mobility on the recognition and promotion of indigenous and diverse cultures is a subject that evokes strong positions and sentiments. Many believe that modern information and communication technologies and the movement of people, ideas, and culture across national boundaries present new opportunities to promote one’s culture to other countries and to provide more chances for the fusion and hybridization of culture. Supporting this position is the assumption that this flow of culture across borders is not new at all, although its speed has been accelerated and its modes broadened.

Others see both the movement and the speed as alarming. They contend that these same forces are eroding national cultural identities and that instead of creating new, hybrid cultures, they are homogenizing native cultures—by which, in most cases, they mean Westernized. Because education has traditionally been seen as a vehicle of acculturation, these arguments focus on the specifics of curriculum content, language of instruction (particularly the increase in English) and the teaching/learning process in international education. The impact of colonization on education has long been a subject of research, but internationalization as a tool for neo-colonization, especially in terms of culture, requires for further study.

Internationalization of higher education was originally conceived in terms of exchange and sharing of ideas, cultures, knowledge, values, etc. Formalized academic relations between countries were normally expressed in bilateral cultural and scientific agreements. Today, the agreements are often based on trade, economics, and politics, showing a significant shift from the original idea of academic exchange. Thus, there are two factors at play. One is the potential, and for many, threat of cultural homogenization, and the second is the weakening of cultural exchange in favour of more economically and politically-oriented relationships.


International and regional rankings of universities have become more popular and problematic in the last five years. The heated debate about their validity, reliability, and value continues. But at the same time university presidents declare in their strategic plans that a measurable outcome of internationalization will be the achievement of a specific position in one or more of the global ranking instruments. Internationalization is perceived by some institutions as a means to gaining worldwide profile and prestige. The intense competition for world rankings would have been impossible to imagine a mere 20 years ago, when international collaboration among universities through academic exchanges and development cooperation projects were the norm. Of course, these types of activities still take place, but the factors driving internationalization are becoming increasingly varied, complex, and competitive. Is international cooperation becoming overshadowed by competition for status, bright students, talented faculty, research grants, and membership in global networks?

What next?

With innovation come new opportunities, successes, and also threats. It is imperative that the international, intercultural, and global dimensions of higher education continue to be proactive, responsive, and innovative, while keeping a close watch on unanticipated spin-offs and implications. As internationalization matures through its ages and stages of growth, a critical eye and strong will are needed to monitor intended and unintended results -for this year and twenty-five years hence. AM

Jane Knight is a globally-recognized expert on the internationalization of higher education. She is adjunct professor at OISE/University of Toronto and a Fulbright New Century Scholar 2007-2008.