The Internationalization of Higher Education: until when do we leave measurements?
By José Antonio Quinteiro Goris | For more than three decades, the internationalization of higher education has attracted increasing attention at the policy level, at the institutional, national, regional and international spheres. The implementation of these policies requires substantial long-term investment that demands huge financial and human resources, which is why the assessment and control of quality are critical to ensure that such internationalization efforts contribute to the relevance and quality of education, in line with expected results.
As internationalization efforts become more costly, it becomes critical to objectively know, in measurable terms, the achievements made in order to obtain more decisive support, particularly in the Latin American university that has 55% of its enrollment in the private sector. Moreover, accountability – which has been on the policy agenda of higher education systems since the 1980s – forces higher education institutions (HEI) to establish mechanisms that demonstrate the effectiveness of investment in all their fields of action. However, various studies show that “performance measurement in universities has been used more frequently to manage financial resources, research productivity and teaching quality, but less so to administer the management of community services or other areas that gravitate within the third mission of the universities” (Alach, 2017).
Another driving force behind the measurement of internationalization is the expansion and increasingly widespread use of rankings. The positions reached by HEI in these instruments are not only of interest to elite institutions in open competition, but have also become a germinating force of attention – and in some cases of obsession – for a wide spectrum of universities that want to see themselves soaring up positions on the leaderboards. As is well known, internationalization is also considered in these rankings and, as is the case of the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, with a specific weight of 7.5% of the total score.
The analysis of the literature reveals the existence of some instruments for measuring the internationalization of higher education. The Internationalization Quality Review Process (IQRP, 1999) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in collaboration with the Brussels Academic Cooperation Association, was the first effort in this regard. Other instruments would appear later, such as Criteria for Evaluating the Internationalization of the Universities in Japan (2006), the Indicator Project of the Center for Higher Education Development (CHE – 2006), the ACE Review Process of the United States of North America (2008) , Indicators for Mapping and Profiling Internationalization – (IMPI -2007), the Mapping Internationalization (MINT) tool designed by the Dutch Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education (NUFFIC – 2007), the Certificate for Quality in Internationalization of the Flemish Association of Accreditation of the Netherlands (NVAO – 2011), and the Indicators of the Higher Education project developed between the UNESCO Office of Bangkok and the University of Tokyo (2016), among many others.
As a researcher and expert on the issue of internationalization, Catherine Yuan Gao argues in her new book Measuring University Internationalization (2019) that «despite the existence of these instruments, one including a manageable number of indicators has not yet been developed.» And speaks, in this sense, of the «mushrooming effect» or «proliferation as spores» to denote the excess of indicators that hinders the application of these instruments. By virtue of this, she conducts an investigation with a view to revealing a set of indicators not only taxed from a conceptual framework prepared by herself, but also takes note of those suggested by the HEI officials who, in short, are the ones who advance the internationalization efforts and are the ones that are interested in this information first-hand, in the certainty that «their involvement maximizes the utility and acceptance of the instrument».
Researcher Yuan Gao applied a questionnaire in China, Singapore and Australia (129 valid surveys), and filtered the excessively disaggregated data and others that could only be applied in a particular context, arriving at a set of 6 dimensions, 15 elements and 15 indispensable indicators which, in her opinion, act as a common denominator for any exercise in measuring internationalization, despite having been surveyed in the Asia-Pacific geographical context (see Table# 1).
Despite this great contribution, C.Y. Gao points out that the indicators can only provide a snapshot of what is happening with internationalization, and that they definitely cannot replace a comprehensive assessment since not all aspects valued in internationalization can be quantified. For this reason, the author leaves out of this set of basic indicators, those that gravitate within the cultural dimension in the absence of linear cause-effect relationships between the components grouped in it, or their interrelations with any of the other six (6) identified dimensions.
Why is it so difficult to measure the results of internationalization in higher education?
First, there seems to be no consensus on the components that should be included in the measurement of the internationalization of higher education, this implies the lack of a clear defining construction around the concept (Gao, 2019).
Secondly, many of the existing instruments only cover one aspect of internationalization, for example, incoming and outgoing student mobility. Others include indicators that are not suitable for international comparability, such as the one devised by Horn, Hendel and Fry (2007) that includes indicators such as “number of Peace Corps Volunteers” that only applies to the measurement of HEI within the context of the United States of America.
Third, there is an exacerbated propensity to compare with the so-called «World Class Universities» (WCUs), which enjoy countless factors that favor the intensity and quality of their international dimension, so that any comparative effort inexorably leads to demoralizing results that abort or discourage the continuity of any measurement effort. Suffice it to recall that WCUs are the ones intensively dedicated to research, and that international rankings assign the greatest weight to research indicators (80% ARWU, 62.5% THE and 60% QS) (Gacel – Ávila, 2018).
Finally, it is difficult to obtain reliable and relevant information that can be internationally comparable in the areas of learning, knowledge transfer, cultural appropriation and others.
Despite these and other factors hindering the measurement of internationalization in higher education through indicators, the internationalization process can also be assumed by the HEI themselves under a self-regulatory model that includes self-assessment and evaluation by academic peers or equivalent institutions. Under this model, intraregional mobility of students and researchers, joint research projects and research networks would be components of an internationalization process in line with the ideal conceptual prototype of the Latin American and Caribbean university with its own quality and meaning.