Internationalisation appears to be good for the economy. Let’s increase its quality.
The Dutch economy benefits from the internationalisation of higher education. At least, that is what is presented as one of the careful conclusions of the report by the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, recently published on the request of the State Secretary for Education. The report examines whether the internationalisation of Dutch higher education is indeed as beneficial for the Dutch economy as we all expect.
Two discussions: revenue and quality
The report is part of a larger discussion. A letter previously sent to parliament by the ministry in a way provides a good summary of what the discussion is all about. Basically, the discussion has two themes: financial issues and quality issues.
In 2010, a majority in parliament asked for an inventory of the added value provided by international students to the Netherlands. In 2011, the discussion was further deepened by the observation of the imbalance between the number of Dutch students graduating abroad and the number of international students coming to the Netherlands.
These two developments led to a discussion about quality: how can we raise the quality of internationalisation as a whole so that it benefits the Netherlands in general?
The CPB report found that current internationalisation activities probably contribute positively to the Dutch economy in general. It is interesting to look at the effects that supposedly led to this conclusion:
- Students with more choices will be more successful in finding a study programme that matches their requirements. Institutions are seen as being more competitive, which will improve the quality of the education they supply.
- An international student population may lead to the development of intercultural and international competences and thereby to higher student-productivity.
- International students achieve better. There is evidence that they perform better than their Dutch peers in the same classroom. Dutch students might be stimulated by them.
The assumptions are interesting. Will competitiveness indeed increase quality? Is an international population a pathway to overall higher productivity? Do international students achieve better, and how can we measure that? The first question remains unanswered. As for the second one, CPB agrees that it may also be counterproductive and that language and cultural barriers may lead to a fallback in knowledge transfer.
Taking these assumptions into consideration, however, CPB concludes that, even though the number of incoming students is currently higher than the number of outgoing students, revenues are rising. They calculated that even with a small number (2.5%) of international students staying in the Netherlands, the effect is positive. The current probability of graduates staying is said to be 19%, which is substantial. But how do we determine the chances of a student staying after graduation? That is easier said and done. The study therefore seems to strengthen the argument for researching this aspect more thoroughly.
All in all it remains rather difficult to find hard evidence that internationalisation is profitable.
How to increase the positive effects?
Let us assume that international students indeed have a positive effect on the Netherlands. We then need to take it to the next level. In order to maximise the effects as much as possible, the ministry has defined five key elements, two aimed at increasing numbers and three aimed at improving quality.
1. Stimulate outgoing mobility
Experience gained abroad leads to skills and competences needed for the international labour market. This investment therefore pay its cost back to Dutch society. Since the numbers currently are low and the effects are assumed to be substantial, outgoing mobility should be stimulated.
2. Stimulate the quality of incoming students
Pick your partners wisely. Set up joint degree programmes with high-level institutions you trust. Make arrangements regarding the type of student that will take the programme at your institution. This is the only way to guarantee quality students.
3. International classroom
The presence of international students in the classroom can have positive peer-effects on Dutch students. These effects will disappear if the group’s composition is not balanced. Also, institutions have found that the mere fact of having a student in an international classroom does not necessarily lead to better education. It is therefore important to facilitate this. Determine what you want with an international classroom. What is the actual outcome?
4. Transparent internationalisation policy
Institutions need to be transparent about the way the international classroom adds to the targets related to education, quality and the labour market. Without a policy framework, there is no good anchor for internationalisation activities, and even the most ambitious ones will risk losing touch with reality at the institutions.
5. Improve the tie with the Netherlands
Students must stay after graduation - that is good for Dutch economy. Good and objective information before departure will raise the number of students choosing to stay in the Netherlands. Reduce obstacles (red-tape) to increase the number that actually stays. Integration is also important, as is promoting international student participation and an active introduction into the Dutch language and culture.
Restoring balance and improving the quality of incoming students, classes and policy. Having more students stay after graduation. All good things, of course. But how do they relate to the money issue? Is it not a somewhat indistinct conclusion – internationalisation might be profitable – that functions as a stepping stone to increasing quality in general? Well, that might be true. But in the end I do not really care. As long as it gives us a handle to keep on developing the quality of internationalisation. Hard figures will follow in due time, I am sure.
What do you think? Is it possible to express the internationalisation of higher education in hard euros or are all efforts in that direction vague by definition? Or are exercises like these uniquely valuable although more work will be required to arrive at a reliable figure?