Benchmarking Across Borders at the NMMU - Vol 5

This, the fifth in the series of Colloquia hosted during our ‘Family Week’, is a continuation of the conversation that started in 2004. We set the scene for these debates when we indicated that: “It was envisaged that these Colloquia should recognise the fact that the internationalisation of higher education operates in a paradigm that needs a new definition to ensure the relevance of the university of the 21st century. It needs to question whether the definition that is used widely to describe higher education internationalisation, namely that it is the process of integrating an international and intercultural dimension into the teaching, research and service functions of the institution, is comprehensive enough to address the challenges of the higher education knowledge society.”

Peter Scott is accurate in his assessment of what should be included in a definition of internationalisation today by saying that the 21st century world is complex, diverse and pluralistic and these complexities must be the starting points in considering the international dimensions of mass higher education systems. Rather than trying to conjure internationalism out of past myth it is necessary to try to define it in terms of present and future conditions.

Over time we stuck to the agenda that we set and the following matters received attention:

  • What would be the characteristics of an internationalised higher education university?

  • What is meant by internationalisation of the curriculum?

  • How do internationalisation promote the understanding of cultural differences and what should be done to celebrate cultural diversity to enhance the educational process?

  • How would internationalisation support quality assurance of all activities of higher education institutions?

It is clear from the above that answers to these questions will only be provided if the matters are systemically and scholarly approached. The internationalisation of a higher education institution is not a single event but a systematic process. The discussions and evaluation of the process should in the end result in a common understanding of internationalisation.

What became clear during the discussions at all the previous Colloquia is that higher education internationalisation need in depth debates that questions and guides. It needs to be recognised that internationalisation as a higher education practice and scholarly activity needs to move from a pioneering paradigm to a more stable institutional environment. Theories and globally accepted practices should become the fundamental drivers of internationalisation. In the pioneering phase of internationalisation individuals set the agenda. We should develop internationalisation to become institutionally driven, founded in globally accepted and theoretically-based principles. We, however, need to accept the fact that one of the fundamental characteristics of internationalisation is that it would always be in the forefront of higher education change. We will never reach the final answer and need to ‘live the question’ with innovation, based on theoretical principles, as one of its main features.

The fifth Colloquium in the series was designed to enable a global debate with a particular goal: To develop a common understanding of what globally accepted practices of an internationalised higher education institution are. This Colloquium was, however, different from the previous four, it only included participants that represented the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s partner universities. All the universities represented six different higher education systems and at least five types of institutions. This included USA liberal arts colleges, Master’s granting universities as well as Doctoral granting universities, German Fachhochschules, Universities of Applied Sciences and research intensive universities. The Colloquium was also attended by comprehensive universities from Norway, Mexico, Japan and The Netherlands. The question of benchmarking was thus debated by a global network of institutional representatives as well as a group of universities that span all types of institutions.

This was truly a benchmarking exercise across borders. It was a demonstration of institutional partners cooperating in building internationalisation in a global setting as part of a network. It was a clear illustration of how institutional partnerships based on global cooperation and trust with a clear vision to share practices to enhance the internationalisation of institutions individually and collectively, is in itself a best practice and benchmark.

The importance of such an exercise for higher education was aptly summarised by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Derrick Swartz, in his opening remarks. He stressed the importance of benchmarking exercises by stating the following:

”Benchmarking across borders is an interesting matter for discussion. It addresses the search that all of our institutions are having as we are grappling with the consequences of globalisation that began in the eighties, and which has expressed itself, at least in higher education, under the term of internationalisation. We are searching to make meaning of a bewildering, dynamic, highly fluid and contradictory world as it unfolds before us and for which there are no rules of engagement as yet. As we have to adapt 20th century institutions, traditions, cultures and educational systems to cope with the new world and the early 21st century’s challenges, I think this discussion is very much in vogue. We have to make up the rules as we go along, develop conceptual tools to help us to at least navigate the short-term and to begin to reveal practices over time that can then become sediments or foundations for the medium- and the long-term sustainability of internationalisation. Thus benchmarking across borders works at multiple levels of physical, geographical and spatial borders in a world that has shrunk. With communication now so instantaneous, our ability to disseminate information is almost instant. Our cognitive, cultural and educational systems as well as our traditions cannot cope with this rapidity of change or the volume of information and knowledge that is constantly circulating around the planet. We have to look at borders within as well as at mental borders.

The development of ICT over the past four decades has been such a fantastic revolution creating new possibilities so that even the mental borders that we have created in our minds have to be constantly revisited and subverted by the realities facing us, and this we find in our classrooms.”

The Colloquium highlighted that exercises like these were a long-term investment in institutional

improvement through cooperation. The immediate benefits of such an exercise provided the participating institutions with a better understanding of internationalisation philosophies, practices, as well as an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each other.

This Colloquium, that formed part of the bi-annual partner get together, or as commonly known amongst the NMMU partners, the ‘family week’, will not only enhance the cooperation at all levels amongst the partners but is expected to enhance the levels of internationalisation amongst the individual institutions.

Benchmarking plays an important role to assist the university of the 21st century to develop a series of best practices that will enhance its global competitiveness. It is an accepted principle that a modern university should be flexible and should always strive towards excellence in all its endeavours to be able to be globally competitive. De Wit and Teekens concluded the first chapter in this publication by indicating that for benchmarking to be transformational, institutional practitioners and policy makers should use such activities to rather measure impact than “how much”.

The internationalisation activities that received the most attention during the debates were the following:

  • Mobility – both staff and student.

  • Indicators that evaluate internationalisation practices.

  • Internationalisation and the institutional planning process.

Mobility: The origins of the internationalisation of higher education as a particular higher education activity stemmed from the mobility of students. This was seen as a necessary characteristic of an internationalised higher education institution and defined internationalisation in its early stages of development. It was for this reason that the establishment of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) in 1996 was driven by the need to orderly manage the influx of international students to South African universities. For most of its initial years the focus was on developing mechanisms to manage international student mobility. The move away from the focus on mobility for mobility’s sake was questioned during the benchmarking exercise. It was clear the benchmark to be set was to link mobility, both student and staff mobility to the curriculum. The message was clear that mobility as an activity, without a direct link to the curriculum and its learning outcomes are questioned. This is one of the areas where indicators to measure the levels of internationalisation needs to be developed. Hanneke Teekens admits in her article on indicators that this is one of the most challenging areas to develop indicators, which will provide guidance and direction.

The presentation that was developed as a paper by Kris Hemming Lou and Gabriele Weber Bosley, entitled: Maximising the study abroad experience through the development of intercultural competence provides a clear way on how to move beyond mobility for the sake of mobility.

The final word about this has not been written. The conceptualisation on what should be done has clearly been done, what is however still lacking amongst all the partners that participated in the benchmarking exercise is the capacity to develop and implement useful indicators to measure the outcomes of mobility activities. Institutional capacity, both at a skills and human resources level was clearly one of the challenges identified in all the self-study reports. A common feature in the reports is the low level of participation of academic staff (faculty) in international activities related to mobility. It clearly set the scene for cooperation amongst partners in this regard.

The Colloquium did not engage in a discussion on degree-seeking international students and their role in internationalisation. This is clearly an area for discussion by partners. As this represents both competition and collaboration the notion of knowledge mobility and its outcomes need to be discussed at international partner level. This is the higher education area where the developing world should set the agenda.

Indicators that evaluate internationalisation practices. The methodology on the use of indicators as presented by Hanneke Teekens from Nuffic, is a best practice. The challenge in applying these would be to institutionalise these indicators. The diversity of institutional types and its applicability to each of these requires institutional engagement with the indicators. As indicated in the paper on this topic, indicators are only relevant when they provide insight in institutional developments. Indicators should measure results and results should be comparable. The benchmarking exercise provided an opportunity for peers to engage in debates around similar internationalisation topics. The self-study reports submitted is the first step towards the development of institutional indicators. It could be envisaged that the next step would be for partners to discuss their own indicators in future. Prof Hans de Wit, however, cautioned that in the development of these indicators:

“If you do not constantly refer to your indicators, what were your benchmarks, and where are you in time and evaluate with a view to re-adapt then it becomes a piece of paper that nobody pays attention to. You have to be honest in that. Measurement is one of the most difficult things. Of course we can measure output and we can measure input, but what is much more difficult to measure is outcomes, especially learning outcomes, what we want our students to achieve, what kind of international competence we would like our students to have.”

Internationalisation and the institutional planning process. The ambition of universities and their place in the global higher education landscape became a contested area in the higher education debate. This was discussed in depth by the participants and clearly summarised by Prof Hans De Wit when he commented:

“I think there are more universities in the world who have in their mission that they want to be in the top hundred or top two hundred or top five hundred of the world rankings than there are places on those ranking lists. It is mostly an unrealistic approach to planning. The same applies to everybody who says that we want to be a world-class university. The principle is that you have to be realistic, otherwise a strategic plan becomes something that is obsolete. Everybody talks about it but nobody really does something to make it happen.”

Internationalisation of higher education. The benchmarking exercise did not escape the discussion on the future of internationalisation. The reasoning behind the current positioning of internationalisation was introduced by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Vice- Chancellor, with the following comments:

“Internationalisation is in its early adolescence. The notion of internationalisation as it mutates and evolves into the future demands that we seek for meaning and create concepts to give us a better understanding of how to package and better the world that is very bewildering. As the social movement is taking its course and its effect we want to give meaning to it and give labels, concepts, to describe it, and to give analytical tools to help us to understand our practices better.

My only caution is that this search for totality and giving some sense of explanation to something is an open-ended one, and we live in a world that is infinitely uncertain and constantly changing. The concepts that we will develop today and tomorrow are provisional concepts, and they mark us. They are guidelines to help us to grapple with perhaps the more contemporary issues that we are dealing with. As we craft these concepts to understand our practices of internationalisation better, whether it is the curriculum, our institutional philosophy, our administration, the knowledge that we produce, the way students interact or scholarly activity. I hope that we will take cognisance of the fact that these are porous concepts and these are concepts whose time will eventually come. They will have to be subverted by new concepts in the pauperian sense of the word. So I hope that we will be pragmatic in this regard, but always bear in mind that we live in a world that is infinitely uncertain, and that the truth claims we make about the world are highly provisional. They perhaps almost always speak to issues that we are grappling with now, but tomorrow’s issues may well subvert the meaning of those concepts and force us to supersede them and replace them with other concepts.

We will have to look at new ways of understanding it as a social movement and an institutional movement, if that takes shape we will better understand our practice and develop some new traditions as we have done over the last 20/25 years. So I am calling for an acceptance of the principle of uncertainty, which as you know in quantum physics has been in vogue for some time, but I believe it helps us to understand the fact that realities and systems are never completely closed or hermetically sealed, they invariably internally contradict, and even if we reach some description of how it works it is a provisional explanation and it will be subverted eventually by new truth claims. It is about the perennial contestation between universality and particularity that as a species we are searching for globalisation and per definition, internationalisation. This has brought us closer to understanding that we are driven by the same broad transcendental, if not trans-historical, values of love and compassion, of wanting to care for our neighbours and our communities and for the wider world. That we are not only citizens in the city of Port Elizabeth, not only in South Africa and the continent of Africa, but we are also simultaneously and often in contradictory ways also citizens of the world. Our identity is global citizens and as part of being human in the early 21st century, and universities par excellence are institutions that operate right there at that

universal edge of looking at the world, because we constantly see ourselves as searching for truth regardless of borders. We also validate knowledge that can subvert all sorts of orthodoxies. We want to create a society of men and women that are free and critical thinkers.

Yet at the same time in each of our countries we occupy a particular context, historical, cultural, linguistic, political context, a development, industrial context and so on, and this conversation between our particularity and our universality is a constant dialectic that we will have to allow to play out in conversations about internationalisation. I hope this will be a feature of the discussions when we speak about curriculum innovation and the characteristics of an internationalised higher education university. We should grapple with the stanchions between our search for certainty, the inherent uncertain nature of our world and our search for a sense of universality with recognition about our particularism.”

This call to evaluate current higher education internationalisation theories and practices from the point of departure that it is in its adolescence, explains the regular call for the re-assessment of internationalisation. The question should be asked for how long will it be in the adolescence phase. Knowledge domains don’t have a specific time cycle that determines its maturity. The engagement of those in the field with the knowledge field to develop it into a mature knowledge area would be the only drivers that can determine its developmental stage. Colloquia like this where the outcomes are published will not only enhance the development but also assist in the move towards “adulthood” of the internationalisation of higher education as a discipline. It is a given that it would be a multi-disciplinary activity, practiced by specialists from a variety of academic disciplines. One of the characteristics of internationalisation of higher education is that it allows those that want to engage with it to do so, within its own disciplinary context. This has been the case for the past thirty years. In determining its future within higher education a thorough, inclusive engagement with the past conversations on internationalisation of higher education should be done to develop benchmarks and indicators that will clearly define the terrain of higher education internationalisation.

This publication provides a glimpse of what is possible through international cooperation.

Dr Nico Jooste

Senior Director, Office for International Education, NMMU

Please Download the full colloquium booklet HERE

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