International education

Is international higher education just an elite club?

Writen by Hakan Ergin for University World News

“Mobility is still ‘king’ in most internationalisation discussions.” – Laura E Rumbley

When I started as an international graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 2011, the president of the university addressed us during the orientation programme for new international students. While expressing his appreciation about our presence there, he told us what most university leaders still think today: “A good university is international”. What ‘goodness’ and ‘internationalisation’ meant left a question mark in my mind at the time.

Four years later in 2015, Hans de Wit and Fiona Hunter noted that internationalisation is expected to “enhance quality for all” and “make a meaningful contribution to society” in their updated definition of the term.

Such a concept seems hard to disagree with. Nevertheless, as we draw near the end of the second decade of the new millennium, it is difficult to see how international higher education has evolved into a phenomenon which is ‘good’ and ‘meaningful’ for everyone.

On the contrary, it has remained a tiny club based on physical mobility which is accessible only to the healthy, wealthy and brainy.

Physical mobility

Although there are a few exceptions, most mobility programmes are designed for people who have the ‘ideal’ health conditions required to travel abroad. In some cases, host universities may even require international candidates to have a medical report proving that they are healthy enough for registration.

More often than not, there is no specific strategy for attracting disabled people. Even if a disabled international candidate is admitted to a university, the staff at the international office may not be prepared, well-trained or experienced enough to respond to his or her special needs.

Disabled people are not the only group who are ignored by internationalisation. Those from low-income backgrounds are also unlikely to benefit. As physical mobility is mostly cast as mobility from a developing country to a more developed one, it is not easy for a typical lower middle-class family to afford it, given also the low value of their local currency.

There are over five million international students worldwide today, the vast majority of whom are sponsored by their ‘wealthy’ parents.

There are, of course scholarships for healthy but not wealthy candidates. However, as there is more demand than supply, it is often extremely competitive to get one.

For example, last year more than 5,000 students from Istanbul University in Turkey applied for the Erasmus+ mobility programme to study for a term in another country in the European Higher Education Area. As available funding was limited, only one 20th of all applicants, who had the highest grade point average and score in the English language test taken at the university, were awarded the scholarship.

This shows that even an established mobility programme, which is well-funded by a supranational organisation – the European Union – can only enable mobility for a small group of individuals who are labelled ‘brainy’ enough by several quantitative academic measures.

Digital mobility

All of this shows that physical mobility cannot and will not help make an international higher education experience accessible to more than a tiny group of individuals who have health-related, monetary or academic privileges.

The good news is that “there is growing recognition that it is both impractical and unwise to focus on mobility as the primary means of developing intercultural awareness”, according to a recent blog post by Betty Leask, Elspeth Jones and Hans de Wit.

There are over five million international students worldwide today, the vast majority of whom are sponsored by their ‘wealthy’ parents.

The bad news is, as they say, “that internationalisation is still predominantly perceived in most countries as being primarily about mobility”. As it is quite apparent that the dominance of mobility is to continue until an unknown date, should we wait for it to end or strive to make it more accessible? I am in favour of the latter through the medium of digital higher education via distance learning.

The distinctive power of distance learning is that time and place are not important. In my view, this can make international mobility more convenient for three reasons. As digital mobility does not necessitate a visa and other travel bureaucracy, it can make access to an international learning environment more ‘practical’.

Moreover, it can make it more ‘economically affordable’ as it eliminates the need for travel and accommodation abroad. As a result, having an international learning experience can become more ‘socially equitable’ as it is more accessible compared to physical mobility abroad, which is impractical, costly and academically competitive for the vast majority of students.

Several universities in the world have already noticed the ‘bright future’ of digital mobility and have begun investing in it. For example, earlier this year Northeastern University in the United States appointed its first ‘vice president for digital learning’ to better manage digital internationalisation at the top level of the university’s administration.

By investing in digital internationalisation, universities can expect to reach potential learners anywhere in the world in ways that they cannot through traditional routes.

Internationalisation so far: a success story?

Despite my criticisms, I should give internationalisation of higher education to date due credit. It would not be fair to state that it has been a total disappointment. It has already contributed significantly to peace among nations. A good example is the Erasmus mobility programme which has developed mutual understanding across European countries since the Second World War.

However, I do not think that it would be correct to declare internationalisation a success story either. We should admit that, as it currently stands, it is old-fashioned. Since the early Sophists’ era thousands of years ago, internationalisation has been focused on physical mobility.

Not only has the type of mobility remained unchanged, but so too has the social class of those who are mobile. Just as aristocratic families’ children were able to study abroad in medieval times, elite families do the same for their children today.

I do recognise that internationalisation of higher education does not just mean mobility. Internationalisation of immobile individuals through internationalising the curriculum is a vital topic. In their blog post, Leask, Jones and De Wit remind us of the need to find new ways of becoming international and suggest that internationalisation should be more inclusive.

For me the advantages of digital mobility include being able to create more international content and a more international learning environment. In this way, international higher education, which is considered to be a ‘common good’, can become ‘more common’ and will not be restricted to the elite club described above.

the advantages of digital mobility include being able to create more international content and a more international learning environment.

Nevertheless, I would not want to ignore the difference between learning in a traditional and online classroom. Yet I believe that any opportunity that can make international higher education more inclusive should be employed for the sake of the ideal of internationalisation for all.

We should not surrender to the dominance of physical mobility; we must seek to move things forward. Otherwise, the international learning experience will remain a ‘good’ and ‘meaningful’ opportunity enjoyed by some, but not all.

Hakan Ergin is a lecturer at Istanbul University, Turkey, and a former postdoctoral scholar at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. E-mail: