Science by nature pushes boundaries and crosses borders. Considering the future of internationalization of higher education in an increasingly globalized environment, the question can never be whether we should continue to internationalize. As the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts it: “Higher education is the engine of globalization and is the engine of it.
Does this mean that the internationalization of universities develops automatically and therefore no longer requires attention? Never. Given their mission to provide high-quality education, innovative research and impactful services, academic institutions are required to adopt a responsible leadership role. In my view, taking on this role, especially in view of the major societal challenges we face as a global community, will be our greatest challenge in the years to come.
This means that our internationalization policy must focus on one ideal: global education for all, to allow as many people as possible to discover the richness of the various perspectives offered by higher education. We owe it to society to continue to explain that if the policy of internationalization can be costly in the short term for some and for others, it benefits all in the long term.
However, various prerequisites must also be met. Maastricht University proudly presents itself, for good reason, as the European University of the Netherlands. Internationalization is fundamental to our strategy, our courses and our success. It is ubiquitous on our campus. This fulfills one of the necessary prerequisites for internationalization: a holistic approach. The choice to make the university fully bilingual also helps.
Another prerequisite is that internationalization is intrinsically driven, rather than resulting solely from the pursuit of a revenue model. With 80% of its immediate environment located in two foreign countries, internationalization in Maastricht has evolved since the 1990s as a matter of course.
Applying the maxim “think globally, act locally”, European standards and values guide our actions. Linked to our mainstream European academic community, our European-oriented teaching and research, and our European institutes and programs, Europe represents for us first and foremost an openness to listening and learning from others. This is important when it comes to developing our region, contributing to the Netherlands and working as equals with partners around the world on the key challenges set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. .
It also makes sense that we play a pioneering role within Europe in the collaboration between academic institutions and their associates. Decades ago, Maastricht University established the Transnational University of Limburg, an institutionalized initiative with study and research programs operating jointly with a partner university in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine. A more recent initiative is YUFE (Young Universities for the Future of Europe), a Europe-wide partnership supported by the European Union comprising 10 universities and five non-university institutions with the aim of developing the European university of the future, enabling students to obtain a European diploma.
YUFE has an explicit goal of adopting an approach that is accessible and non-elitist; By connecting the programs of participating universities both online and offline, students, staff and, in the long term, citizens will also be able to gain international experience. This openness can be seen as a prerequisite for a process of responsible internationalization aimed ultimately at creating an environment for global education accessible to all.
Without claiming to be exhaustive, I would like to dispel the widespread feeling that student and staff travel is another prerequisite for internationalization. Maastricht University has long focused not only on incoming and outgoing mobility, but also on a home-based internationalization process. After more than 30 years of developing an international course, we have succeeded in attracting a very diverse population of students and staff in terms of nationality. This means our students are already participating in a truly international class on the majority of our programs. This gives them the opportunity to work on their intercultural skills and to become global citizens within our own region.
There are also catalysts for internationalization. Consider the rapid developments in technology-assisted education that have taken place under the influence of the pandemic. The ever-increasing worldwide demand for higher education is a stimulating factor. The more accessible our education becomes, the more talent is made available to regions around the world to work towards increased prosperity and well-being. The key word here is impact. Of course, our task is also aided by a global job market that expressly demands young talent who can navigate an internationally intertwined society. It is also interesting to note that in the field of student mobility, we observe an overall shift towards the East. So this part of the world is also opening up.
With so many points in the direction of globalization of higher education, does that mean it will be an easy process? Far from there. There are still many issues to be resolved, ranging from practical hurdles to complex questions of knowledge security and ideological dilemmas about whether it is appropriate to cooperate with a particular regime or institution. I think we should openly discuss these issues more frequently. We should be able to justify why we work with all of our partner institutions, without being presumptuous or unilaterally reflecting only our own Western-dominated value system.
I return to Maastricht. Internally, inclusivity and diversity are high on our agenda, but we still have some way to go. Do all groups feel welcome and comfortable here? How diverse is our university if we look beyond nationality? Are we admitting enough first generation students, migrants and refugees? And what about gender accessibility? Are we as oriented towards listening and dialogue as we like to believe, or do we still think from the perspective of the superiority of the Old World? And how dare we turn away from excellence? In the name of preserving reputations, will we continue to be guided by rankings that lead to a rat race, rather than focusing on societal impact? All these questions remain unanswered.
It is up to us to tackle these internal obstacles ourselves. Unfortunately, however, we cannot eliminate external obstacles by our own initiatives. Many factors obstruct the way to international cooperation and solidarity. What consequences will the Ukrainian crisis have and to what extent is nationalist populism an obstacle? Are nation states ready to invest in international solidarity and cooperation? Do they dare to remove the barriers that hinder mobility and the sharing of knowledge? What will be the effect of the current discussion on knowledge security? Protection would seem an obvious answer, but health issues, security considerations and climate change require broad cooperation. And under what conditions can we cooperate with institutions in countries whose regimes do not share our norms and values?
As an optimistic person by nature, I say let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Outwardly, showing an understanding for our society, we will have to repeat and back up our argument over and over again. Internally, we have taken the right path, and we are following it step by step. I look forward to future discussions on formulating an appropriate global engagement policy and our next steps to enable barrier-free European education. All of this will bring us closer to our goal: global education for all.
Rianne Letschert is President of Maastricht University.