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To internationalise – Start by integrating your international students

Increasing mobility is rising up the higher education political agenda, but how well are European, national and institutional goals for internationalisation aligned and what happens to international students when they arrive at our universities? NIC MITCHELL looks at a new EUA paper to find out.

International students at SLU, Sweden

International students at SLU, Sweden

 

UNIVERSITIES must do more to integrate foreign students and staff if they want to ‘internationalise’ their campus and classrooms, says a new report from the European University Association (EUA).

Published together with the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), the paper highlights a particularly hot issue for European countries, such as Lithuania and Hungary, where international students seldom speak the local language.

Isolated groups

With foreign students in separate classes taught entirely in English, on courses shun by home students, the international fee-payers can find themselves in ‘isolated groups’ detached from local and international credit-seeking students and missing out on the kind of ‘mobility experience’ they hoped to experience while studying abroad, says the report.

It is based on the results of “Mobility Policy-Practice Connect” (MPPC) project supported by the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Commission, and other related studies since 2009, when the 20% mobility target for the European Higher Education, or EHEA, was first agreed.

Carried out in partnership with the Lithuanian University Rectors’ Conference (LURK), the Conference of French University Presidents (CPU) and the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference (MRK), the study involved workshops and focus groups and a university visit in each of the three countries.

Critical for the mobility experience

The findings show that universities realise that “integration of international students and staff is increasingly becoming a critical issue for the quality of the individual mobility experience”.

Not only that, integration helps internationalise the campus and classroom and promotes outgoing mobility by generating interest in new study destinations and research fields.

The EUA-ACA paper, Connecting mobility policies and practice: Observations and recommendations on national and institutional developments in Europe, says: “Many institutions are trying to address this issue by examining recruitment policies and focusing on the overall quality of the mobility experience, which can include language learning, social integration and enhancing student/staff exposure to academic and cultural differences.”

Comprehensive language policy

One obvious way to break down the barriers between international and local students is through a comprehensive language policy, says the report.

At present foreign-language programmes, usually in English, are seen as a vehicle for internationalisation and specifically to attract international students – with legislative barriers to teaching in foreign languages being recently dismantled in France and Lithuania.

But teaching in English is still contested by faculty, and sometimes by students, and ‘the practical reality is that not all teachers and students are well prepared for English-taught courses’, says the report.

The authors recommend training international students in the domestic language, something that has become mandatory in some institutions in France and is generally offered in Lithuania and Hungary. “Some knowledge of the domestic language is crucial for integration into the society and culture of the host country beyond the university campus.”

Even on the campus, with a few notable exceptions mostly in the Netherlands, ‘administrative service units such as libraries, housing and welfare services or student counsellors still function only in the domestic language’.

Work placements

International work placements, which can now be funded through the Erasmus+ programme, are also recommended as a way to connect both incoming and outgoing students with host companies, which can become potential employers.

They also help students create a professional network of contacts in the host country, which they can use after graduation.

Different priorities

Differences between institutional and national policies towards internationalisation and student mobility were highlighted during the workshops and focus groups in France, Hungary and Lithuania.

In France and Lithuania attracting foreign students is a high policy priority at national level, however universities also want to enhance the quality of outgoing mobility, and want this better articulated in national higher education strategies.

Increasing the number of joint degrees on offer is another priority in all three countries, yet legislative barriers for both offering and quality-assuring such degrees remain a problem.

In Hungary, outgoing credit mobility is a national priority, but the recent increase in grants on offer is still not fully exploited and incoming international degree-seeking/fee-paying students in specific disciplinary areas remain critical for institutions as they compensate for an underfunded sector.

No one- size-fits-all !

The paper says there is no recipe book for creating a successful national strategy for mobility, no one- size-fits-all approach.

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However, they do suggest a list of basic ingredients to be adapted, according to national ‘taste’, and stress: “Good national strategies are never the single-handed act of the ministry of (higher) education, but rather the result of cooperation and dialogue with other competent ministries (of research, internal affairs, employment, foreign affairs, etc.), with the higher education institutions, with the students and ideally with the social partners.”

The authors also urge that national strategies should leave enough flexibility for individual institutional take-up and target setting.

Recommendations

The paper’s key recommendations include:

  • Don’t ignore the value of incoming credit mobility
  • Don’t see outgoing degree mobility as simply ‘brain drain’.
  • European countries need graduates with a profound knowledge of other countries and world regions, best obtained through longer stays abroad.
  • Geographic priorities may be helpful in concentrating efforts and funding, but they should not stifle organically driven research and academic cooperation at the institutional-level.
  • Don’t be vague terms in mobility ambitions. Clear targets and timelines are required like the current European benchmark of having 20% of European graduates with a mobility experience by the year 2020.
  • Provide appropriate funding for different forms of mobility, conduct impact studies, support pilot initiatives and encourage experimentation.
  • Ensure structural reforms and more flexibility of the curricula
  • Remove legislative obstacles to teaching in foreign languages or creating joint degrees.
  • Enhance recruitment possibilities for international staff and facilitate staff sabbaticals.

ALSO SEE: A million babies and better job prospects – thanks to Erasmus!

Words: Nic Mitchell

Photos: British Council and SLU (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences)

* This is an abridged version of a blog by Nic Mitchell on his Delacourcommunications.com website