Mixing matters

Does the 21st century rush for internationalisation help prepare students for life after graduation? Professor Zahir Irani finds out

Being ‘international’ has become a staple of marketing messages for the initiated and mealy advertising for the less aware: students are told about the opportunity to study among a mix of nationalities, take advantage of partnership links overseas and a global perspective on issues. But what does the 21st century rush for internationalisation actually mean for students, and does it prepare them any better for life after graduation?

The problem is the extent to which ‘international’ means standardisation: a homogenous middle ground, a bland common denominator created from a need to find norms and conventions. What’s needed, instead, is a knowledge and understanding of the different, the particular, the challenging. But it also requires students to engage and embrace the opportunity.

When it comes to ranking business schools, what’s rewarded in terms of ranking points is adopting international components within existing ways of operating, not looking outwards and being part of what’s happening elsewhere. There are also question marks around what some of the international measures really mean. If there are high numbers of international students compared with local recruits on programmes, does this suggest the school has struggled to attract domestic applications; perhaps questioning whether the programme has a weak domestic fit with ‘local’ employment opportunities? There are US business schools with a student body made up of more than 90% international students, some at 100%.

Universities promise an international environment within the campus, exposure to a multicultural community of learning. But how does this work for students, and in practical terms, how can they make the most of that variety of experience in a way that they then know how to leverage for their advantage? Much of the time, there’s more likely to be a standardisation of views as students look to make sure they’re in tune with the latest norms of the host country and in the end, want to gain credit; perhaps motivated by the need to pass assessments, not an exploration of differences and alternatives. The mixing is social rather than having a purpose for learning and questioning whether marking schemes can accommodate a breadth of responses.

The challenge is to create forms of international experience that provoke change and difference, that preserve and promote individual cultures rather than, however unintentionally, serve only to reduce them through conformity. In practice, this starts with a clear mission for the type of student you want to develop, distinguishing between the amorphous global citizen, and the open-minded graduate able to operate within and appreciate the qualities of other cultures. In some respects, there is no room to fail as all perspectives are valid in their own way. An institution’s advisory board should include members with a strong overseas background and perspective, in a position to keep the offering away from faux internationalism.

Universities promise an international environment within the campus, exposure to a multicultural community of learning. But how does this work for students, and in practical terms, how can they make the most of that variety of experience in a way that they then know how to leverage for their advantage?

The mission needs to be backed up with a commitment to international accreditations that can offer different insights into programme structures and content used by other institutions operating in their own environments; and an internationalisation agenda by way of a strategy with short, medium and longterm deliverables that are designed around a global citizen mission. International faculty recruitment is also an important element. However, they also need to be supported and encouraged to remain rooted in their individual background, not absorbed into the university to fit with ruling ways of thinking, but continuing to study and research overseas. Here diversity is broad and considers the value of different opinions and views rooted often in background. They should be contributing to a research-enriched curriculum that takes an international view in terms of its grounding and through an empirical approach with a robust methodology.

The curriculum should allow for shaping and influence from different country sources. So, content that includes international case studies that explore diversity, differences in practices and ethical norms. International learning needs to be incentivised and supported by the credibility that comes from a system that allows credits from partner institutions to have credit-currency, making it possible for students to fully learn and earn. The module structure and content needs to allow learning outcomes from partner institutions to be compatible with learning outcomes where the student is undertaking their qualification.The ideal of spending on overseas travel and significant amounts of time in other countries isn’t always a viable option. An international experience can be created physically and virtually. For those staying on campus it’s important that experiences are shared, through study tour blogs, and by creating opportunities for one-to-one briefings, questioning and group work.

The next logical step on from this greater appreciation of the value of difference is localism: a shift to celebrating local strengths and qualities over the broad internationalism. What do universities offer in terms of their regional character, personality and business context? Northern England, in our case, is very proud of its reputation for warmth, humour, for a no-nonsense way of speaking, a down-to-earth philosophy. It’s also known for being a region on the up, building on its heritage as part of the world’s first Industrial Revolution and attracting new investment as the UK looks to create a Northern Powerhouse. This is what will make for the best kind of international institution, one based on a multiplicity of different localisms, and an appreciation of how business can make the best of them rather than reducing them to anything else.

Professor Zahir Irani is Dean – Management and Law, at the University of Bradford School of Management, UK. @Zahirirani1