by Fatma Katr

Globalization continues to shape today’s higher education institutions worldwide through internationalization, fostering global connections, and strengthening academic leadership. Many of these institutions operate under the notion that borders should not stop knowledge.

However, the true positive effect of internationalization is halted by today’s shift in immigration policies, and by governments that don’t place enough value on the importance of their higher education institutions. These scenarios affect leaders, faculty, staff, and students worldwide.

This article will take a look at those trends that are unfolding, and their effects amid recognizing the importance and opportunities of internationalization:

  • Why should worldwide higher education institutions internationalize?
  • The greatest challenge: why new immigration policies are halting the expansion of internationalization
  • Reasons why internationalization could fail
  • How can internationalization best be implied in institutions?

Although the role of internationalization is changing as a result of shifting travel policies, it continues to be driven in institutions by certain factors. The executive boards of universities/colleges were named as the pivotal driving catalysts for a successful internationalization experience, according to research titled “Higher Education Leadership and the Internationalization Imaginary,” by Marianne A. Larsen and Rashed Al-Haque.

The role of university leadership has long been integral to implementing internationalization in higher education from both internal and external leadership, according to Robert Coelen, professor of internationalization of higher education at NHL-Stenden University of Applied Sciences.

Why should worldwide higher education institutions internationalize?

In 2018, the International Association of Universities conducted a global survey of 907 higher education institutions from 126 countries, identifying the importance of internationalization to academic leadership. The survey revealed that around 83% of respondents rated internationalization as “highly important,” namely in Africa and the Middle East.

“At the time when many countries, for political reasons, are becoming more nationalist, protectionist and isolationist, international relations couldn’t be more important,” said Bernhard Streitwieser, assistant professor of international education and international affairs at George Washington University, and UNESCO Chair in International Education for Development.

Through internationalization, academics from many different countries can cooperate on research projects, advancing every field together instead of redundantly conducting the same research. Nadia Abdelrahman, PhD holder and assistant professor of Mass Communication at Misr International University in Egypt, said,  “It is the future of education.”

Through internationalization, universities can also exchange academic staff and students, sharing experiences as well as the latest trends in curriculum and teaching methodologies. No university can be world ranked without internationalization efforts, Abdelrahman added.


The greatest challenge: why new immigration policies are halting the expansion of internationalization

The advancement of internationalization agendas is challenged by a lack of recognition of its relevance to our world today. Student mobility is one of the crucial determinants of successful internationalization today.

University World News published statistics showing that student mobility today has grown greatly unequal, with only 2% of the world student population able to benefit from a period of study abroad. An imbalance in the global flux of mobile students has also been reported as another reason for inequality in student mobility, where certain highly skilled human capital is transferred from one country to another.

During my time as an international student in the U.S., pursuing a master’s degree in media studies, I was told by the international office at my university that due to the strict immigration policies imposed by the current U.S administration I could not be paid to write or publish on my student F-1 visa. An unfortunate piece of news, as being published is an essential part of not only my study abroad period but also my portfolio as a writer.

The consequences of violating that rule included losing my chance to successfully receive another visa to the U.S., and work authorization in the country post graduation. While other students were provided the opportunity, backed by the university, to publish their bylines in several leading publications in the country, an international student like myself was left with no choice but to either do the same and risk the chance of losing work experience in the U.S. following graduation, or to temporarily give up the dream of being published beyond the borders of my country.

I wish I had known of these strict measures prior to my arrival in the U.S.; they were announced only during my university orientation days. Since that time, I have noticed further restrictive measures applied by the U.S government administration to curb the flow of international students to the country.

Changing student visa policies

Within the past few months, the student visa application for the F-1 has changed as well. Not only have the SEVIS fees increased, but it has also become mandatory to provide links to one’s personal social media accounts in the visa application.

“Tightening visa regulations is making it more difficult for some foreign faculty to come to George Washington University,” Streitwieser noted. “The number of international students is declining, and faculty members may be declining, too.”

Violating my visa status under the current administration would also affect my chances of receiving an Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa extension, which I am entitled to following graduation. The OPT is valid for a one-year period and allows an international student to work or intern in the U.S during that period.

“Stricter policies means job seekers may not be able to get visas to attend international job fairs or employment interviews,” Abdelrahman said. “The challenge is obtaining an international job online or by phone, without traveling to meet the employer.”

Every student needs to work hard to secure a job following graduation, but international students need to work even harder to do so—especially those graduating in a non-STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math departments). For STEM-majors, the OPT period is 24 months.

According to the personal experience of Indian humanities graduate Jeevika Verma, as published by the Seattle Globalist, non-STEM international students stand a very weak chance in the U.S job market.

Jeevika Verma in front of Padelford Hall at the University of Washington.

Jeevika Verma in front of Padelford Hall at the University of Washington.

When Verma was offered a job at an American e-commerce company, it took her only a short period of time to learn that her offer was retracted after the employer found out she was an international student. Although she was a qualified candidate, the company reserved its H-1B work visa sponsorship for STEM-related jobs and, like many employers in the U.S, did not want to hire someone for a short period of time (as the OPT period lasts only for a year).

From her personal experience, Verma learned that employers can’t afford to invest in the training of an entry-level employees only to have to sponsor them or lose them when their OPT expires. She also pointed out that non-STEM major fields have a higher chance in standing out in the U.S job market if they’re recipients of a Master’s degree or a PhD. In 2017, the majority of work visa sponsorship in the U.S. were provided for  senior level positions and IT-related fields.

Reasons why internationalization may fail 

While internationalization paves the way for new opportunities for boosting global competencies in higher education institutions, it has also reinforced other challenges. These include intense pressure for institutional competition and collaboration, according to a paper by Paul Zeleza, presidential professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University. It has also made made quality control, transferability, and recognition of qualifications questionable

Zeleza said that faculty engagement is a main challenge for developing and sustaining internationalization, citing the U.S as an example of a country that scores low on indicators of international knowledge, awareness, and competence.

Other primary challenges to effectively implement internationalization, according to Abdelrahman, include time, cost, language, and cultural barriers. “Coordinating with researchers across the globe takes longer than coordinating with a colleague at the next desk.”

A detailed research study by Hague University of Applied Sciences highlighted other reasons for the failure of internationalization, including university and national funding, in which universities adapt a business model of attracting foreign students only for the amount of money they bring in.

Language barrier was named as another reason for a failing experience of internationalization. Since modern internationalization was driven by a proficiency in English, English-speaking countries have a strong advantage in engaging in higher education internationalization than many other countries in which English is not the main language.

“English is the main language in international education, which is a communication challenge for all non-native speakers and acts as a barrier to international student exchange programs,” Adbdelrahman said. “For example, Egypt has a lot of excellent academics who can only conduct research and publish in Arabic.  That means they can’t coordinate with academics outside the Arab world, and their research is never read by non-Arabs.”

Some non-English-speaking countries have excluded foreign students from participating in their higher education institutions until they have learned the country’s local language, despite English being the mainstream language of the international community.

One example of this from my personal experience is Germany. Learning the German language was was a requirement for almost all my college applications for media studies in that country, which demanded at least B.2 level of language proficiency to enroll in its higher education institutions.

While my applications were not successful due to my basic-level knowledge of German, several other institutions in Germany included programs that were taught in English. However, in my case those, too, were a dead end. I could only enroll in these programs through a scholarship like the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which demanded fluency in German to qualify for application—despite the program being instructed in English. I lacked the time and financial capabilities to enhance my German language proficiency, thus ruling out the option of pursuing my postgraduate studies in Germany.

How can internationalization best be implied in institutions?

Internationalization has the highest chance for success when it is viewed as “team responsibility” that includes academic leaders, service units from admissions to the registrar, faculty, campus leaders, and chairs that all commit to the process and take time to integrate an international and intercultural perspective within the institution.

Internationalization needs to include all individuals in an institution so that it could be applied in its best form, according to Streitweiser, who believes that academic leadership, faculty, staff, and students need to work together when defining what internationalization means in terms of achieving their goals.

Universities that isolate themselves from the rest of the world will always be at a disadvantage. They will not be up-to-date with the latest knowledge and trends, which means they can’t provide their students with the best education—which will negatively impact their country’s economy and development. “Their research contributions to education will be limited, as their academic efforts will only be shared locally,” Abdelrahman concluded.

About the author

Fatma Katr is a multimedia journalist who has reported on different beats including politics, business, education, genders issues, human rights and foreign policy. Her reporting is focused in the Middle East region where she majored in print and electronic journalism.

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