Lessons to be learned from student perspectives on internationalisation

17 September 2019

Students are at the core of our internationalisation efforts in HE. Whether we are infusing international, intercultural or global dimensions in our study programmes, or brainstorm on how to benefit all students, we state the focus is in preparing them for our future society and labour market. The critical question I am increasingly asking myself is: what does internationalisation mean for them? What are students’ perspectives on internationalisation and how do they experience the international classroom?

At Zuyd university of Applied Sciences, I have the opportunity to engage with students in and outside class. For them internationalisation in higher education is the new normal. Being taught in English is not really a big deal. Yes, students experience hick-ups  regarding their own or their classmates’ fluency in English. And yes, they sometimes struggle to understand the different accents in English. They raise their eyebrows when ‘school officials’ make funny mistakes, like translating  the Dutch term ‘hoorcollege’ into ‘hearing college’. (What was intended here, was a formal lecture in which the students listen to (hear) what the lecturer has to say). These students however are pragmatic and aware that international aspects of life and work are here to stay, even for those who  do not aspire an international career.

Internationalisation also means attending classes, tutorials or workshop with international students. Although they will tell you it is interesting and meaningful to hear different perspectives, at the coalface they prefer to work within a group of their ‘own’. Its more efficient, everyone knows what is expected, communication is easier. They prefer to handle  group conflicts indepently, partly to avoid lengthy and stressful interventions from lecturers. Having culturally different students in a group, adds a layer of complexity that, in their view, takes more time and increases the risks of a lower grade.

And why should they bother? Often the grades are awarded based on their final product or report. Assessment of the collaborative process does not systematically take place, neither formative nor summative, if at all.  Further, when intercultural group dynamics hinder the collaboration, students say they experience little or even unhelpful support from their lecturers.

Students are aware that internationalisation offers them the opportunity of an exchange or international internship.  Such a period abroad however is no longer considered the big life time adventure anymore. It’s a commodity for those who can afford it or who are interested in it.  This does not imply that students are not interested in travel. Our  students want to experience new and exciting places. They aim however for the authentic experiences they viewed on Instagram. And increasingly they are looking for immersion in local communities, instead of being the tourist or passer-by.

Listening to these students voices, there are two lessons to be learned. First, how can we as international educators ensure that the lived experience of students in the international classroom leads to positive intercultural engagement and meaningful  learning? How do we design our programmes so that they stimulate friendship development, curiosity in the perspectives of peers, and tolerance or even excitement about different ways of studying and working. Which international competences do our subject matter lecturers need to facilitate the intercultural group dynamics to enhance intercultural learning. How do we assess – or better value – the developmental processes our students engage in when they embark on their international and intercultural journey?

Second, how do we infuse in our study programmes the lived international or culturally diverse experiences that students bring with them; experiences originating from their home communities or travel abroad? How do we open up education to these lived experiences in a way that is relevant and meaningful for all students? Are we serious in creating learning spaces for these experiences and how they relate to (global) citizenship? How do we learn to value our students’ experiences as resources, authentic and unique ways of being and knowing? How do we enhance a mindset in higher education that promotes inclusive teaching and learning behaviours.

These are challenging questions for which there are no silver bullets, be it at programme level of the institution as a whole. These questions refer to processes of change within our higher education institutions that actually need to avoid blue prints or simple ABC templates for organisational change. What is needed, is an understanding of the necessity to engage in this process of change through co-creation and involvement all stakeholders. What is needed, is a commitment in time and resources to develop and implement a shared vision of an inclusive, international learning and teaching community, mindful of of a local context, that itself is globally ready.