Internationalization of Higher Education: The importance of context and its implications for Asian/Chinese universities in an era of globalization

Year: 2012

Author: Chia, Yeow-Tong

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper puts forward a case of the importance of contextualization in the understanding of internationalization of higher education, drawing upon Yang's (2002: 84) argument that internationalization "relies heavily... on socio-cultural context". It explains the different contexts and variations of internationalization strategies adopted by universities in the West (taken loosely to mean the Anglo-Saxon countries and Europe) and that of the Asia Pacific. Finally, implications of these understandings to Asian/Chinese higher education will be discussed.

Western universities tend to emphasize the recruitment of international students (and faculty members). While the espoused reason is often that of inter-cultural exchange and understanding, the reality is that of revenue generation, as international students pay much higher tuition fees than domestic students. The drastic cuts in government funding is one major factor pushing the universities to be pro-active in wooing international students. Besides recruiting students from abroad to study on their campuses, some Western universities have set up branch campuses in other countries. Other collaborative programs include franchising of degree programs of Western universities to local educational business providers in Asia. Asian universities, on the other hand, tend to promote student and staff exchanges to Western universities, especially to the US, UK, Australia and Canada. The aim is to increase global and international exposure of students and staff.

At the first glance, the motivation behind internationalization in Europe and North America appears to be economic, (Altbach & Knight 2007), as universities in the West are witnessing funding cuts from governments, while Asian universities are motivated by the goal to be world class research universities and to raise their university rankings (Marginson 2011, Yang and Welch 2011).

However, the deep irony is that, by joining this race to be world-class universities, Asian universities are unwittingly emulating the West, subscribing to the Western notion and model of the university. In other words, this enhances the Western-centric paradigm of the university, where Western knowledge, norms and practices are privileged over the local, meaning to give up one's own cultural roots and dignity. As such, studying the internationalization of higher education in non-Western societies requires an understanding of the tensions and clashes of the local and the global (Western) cultures, with the hope that this would be the start in the conceptualization of an Asian "model" of the university as well as internationalization - by first understanding local contexts and its connections with the global.