Beyond Internationalization: A New Paradigm?

Mar 08, 2022

If you work in or around higher education, you’re likely familiar with the term internationalization. There’s internationalization of higher education, internationalization at home, internationalization of the curriculum. These all have to do with integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into some aspect of higher education. In this post, I share what I consider important limitations of internationalization, and propose a potential paradigm shift.

Defining Internationalization

Two of the leading voices in the area of internationalization of higher education have been Jane Knight and Hans de Wit. Knight (2015) offers this definition:

“Internationalization at the national, sector, and institutional levels is defined as the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of postsecondary education.”

In 2015, de Wit and colleagues updated their own widely-used definition, emphasizing the importance of intentionality and making a meaningful contribution to society. They define internationalization as:

“The intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society.”

Common Critiques of Internationalization

Internationalization has faced many challenges and critiques over the years. The following are just a few of the most common:

  • Most institutions tend to focus more on internationalization abroad than at home.
  • Approaches tend to be very ad hoc and fragmented.
  • Can be elitist in the sense that approaches at many institutions benefit only a small, select group of students (and faculty).
  • Internationalization efforts are increasingly commercialized and driven by a desire to improve institutional rankings.
  • Participation by choice is a privilege for developed nations. Institutions in countries with a history of colonialism may feel required to engage in internationalization in order to compete.

My Concerns with Internationalization

My primary concerns with internationalization are related to its heavy focus on inputs and its limited scope.

First of all, I appreciate that both of the definitions outlined previously mention not just an international or global dimension, but also an intercultural one. However, I think this can actually be problematic because it risks these terms being taken as synonymous.

International refers to relations between and among two or more nations. Global has a more worldwide scope. Intercultural refers to interactions or relations between people from different cultural groups.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, we are all part of and shaped by many different cultural groups—from countries, regions, and ethnicities, to socio-economic, religious or spiritual groups, gender, sexual orientation, differing abilities, and more. Intercultural competence is the process of developing our capacity to engage effectively, appropriately, and authentically across all kinds of cultural differences, locally and globally.

While Knight, de Wit, and others include international, global, and intercultural dimensions in their definitions of internationalization, the name itself hints at where the focus typically is in reality. That is, most internationalization efforts emphasize engagement across and among people from different countries.

Why is this an issue?

One of my key concerns is that focusing on internationalizing higher education may engender approaches that assume engaging with globally-related topics or with people from other countries is sufficient. We focus too much on inputs—creating more study abroad programs, recruiting more international students, offering more globally-focused courses, etc.—without first clearly defining the desired learning objectives and then ensuring our efforts are producing those outcomes.

In fact, research and experience now strongly suggest that contact with others cultures—even immersion—doesn’t consistently lead to increased intercultural competence. These experiences need to be coupled with skilled facilitation of intercultural learning and development. (See Vande Berg, Paige & Lou, 2012, for more info and relevant research.)

Another concern I have is that the emphasis on international and global dimensions overshadows the cultural differences that are all around us, right on our own campuses. Even if it's not visible, our local communities are filled with diverse perspectives, experiences, and ways of making sense of the world. Just look at how polarized society is right now—that’s due to value conflicts (a clear sign of diversity)!

The differences that exist in our local environments not only present opportunities for us to develop intercultural competence at home, they also highlight a very real need. If we’re focused on “internationalizing” our curriculum, for example, we may overlook the opportunity and need to help students in our classes develop the mindset, heart set, and skill set to engage more effectively, appropriately, and authentically with their peers. And as faculty and staff, we may not realize how working on our own intercultural development could improve how we interact with colleagues, as well as students.

Time for a New Paradigm?

For these reasons, I humbly propose a paradigm shift. In fact, several years ago de Wit co-authored an article with Uwe Brandenburg called, “The End of Internationalization.” In it, they concluded:

“[E]ssentially, we need to reaffirm the core role of universities: to help understand this world and to improve our dealing with it. Called for is a common commitment at the institutional and personal level of how we and our students will be prepared to live and work in a global community. Possibly we must even leave the old concepts of internationalization and globalization and move on to a fresh unbiased paradigm.”

I suggest we expand our focus from internationalization to a more inclusive interculturalization of higher education. Rather than just integrating more international and global dimensions into higher education, let’s first think intentionally about the outcomes we wish to produce with such efforts. What are our learning objectives? Do we want to help students develop the capacity to build and thrive in a pluralistic society? To engage more effectively, appropriately, and authentically across all kinds of cultural differences, locally and globally? To empathize deeply with people from different walks of life and recognize our interconnectedness? Do we want students to develop mindsets that will help them consider multiple perspectives and collaborate to produce more innovative, creative solutions to the complex problems our society faces?

If these are our objectives, we need to think about how to help all students develop their intercultural competence. For these reasons, I propose a new paradigm for consideration and exploration:  interculturalizing higher education.

Interculturalizing higher education could include, but certainly not be limited to, integrating more international and global dimensions into our curriculum and programming. However, it would not assume those elements alone will produce the desired learning objectives. And it would focus just as much on developing intercultural competence locally.

A key difference from current practices would be that interculturalization is defined by the outcome it seeks to produce—more interculturally competent global citizens—as opposed to the inputs. For this reason, I’d recommend any institution committed to interculturalization should focus on building up its own intercultural capacity—starting with faculty, staff, and administration—to empower educators to do their work in ways that will foster students’ intercultural learning and development.


While interculturalization of higher education might not exactly roll off the tongue, I believe it represents a much-needed shift in how we think about and approach what’s currently known as internationalization.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic! Please comment below.

To learn more about developing intercultural competence, click here to access my free training, Interculturally Competent U: The What, Why, and How of Building Intercultural Competence in Higher Education. For further food-for-thought, I also recommend this blog post, where I explain what it means to take a developmental approach to intercultural learning.

References & Related Resources

Knight, J. (2015). Updating the definition of internationalization. International Higher Education.

Brandenburg, U., de Wit, H., Jones, E. & Leask, B. (29 June 2019). Defining internationalisation in HE for society. University World News.

de Wit, H. (2020). Internationalization of higher education: The need for a more ethical and qualitative approach. Journal of International Students, 10(1), pp. i-iv.

Tefera, D. (23 August 2019). Defining internationalisation – intention versus coercion. University World News.

Brandenburg, U. & de Wit, H. (2015). The end of internationalization. International Higher Education, 62(62), pp. 15-17.

Vande Berg, M., Paige, R.M. & Lou, K. (2012). Student learning abroad: What our students are learning, what they're not, and what we can do about it. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Photo credit: Marc Olivier Jodoin, Unsplash

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