‘Discussion about internationals at the university is unequal, unfair, and unethical’

The political debate about fewer foreign students and more Dutch-speaking education, argues RUG professor Lucy Avraamidou, stems from only one thing: xenophobia.

Global news has been utterly depressing for months now but closer to home, university news is not much lighter. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself in a conversation around the ‘influx’ of international students and a debate about the language of instruction in Dutch higher education.

A ray of hope is to witness our leadership pushing back against suggested measures to curb this ‘influx’ as they are tiptoeing between financial crises and efforts to maintain a strong international profile.  

There are two problems with the current discourse, one a bit more important than the other. The first one is that the word influx makes me nauseous because it implies that we, the internationals, landed in the country uninvited, found a classroom or an office to enter, and are refusing to leave.  

The second problem with the current discourse is that it places international students and staff in a position where they should feel wholeheartedly grateful for the opportunity to even exist in the academic community.

This is unequal, unfair, and unethical given that both students and staff were actively recruited a decade ago as part of the internationalisation efforts of Dutch universities. Now that that job is done, international staff and students are faced with a linguistic nationalism, to put it mildly.  

It implies that we, the internationals, landed in the country uninvited, and are refusing to leave

In actuality, the fixation with the language of instruction is nothing more than a symptom of the larger societal problem that universities ought to engage with: xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners.

It is this same fear that drove Brexit in 2020 and which caused a 53 percent reduction of EU students in British universities the year after, with European staff leaving the country and departments and study programmes shutting down. 

For some time now, I’ve wondered who benefits from internationalisation the most. To resolve this dilemma, I turned to research, naturally. I was not surprised to find that there exists a lot of contemporary research on internationalisation in higher education.

I was, nevertheless, a little bit surprised to find out that there is a resounding consensus in this body of work, which made me wonder what this debate is really about: those who benefit most from internationalisation are the domestic students and staff, not the international ones.

Aside from the obvious great economic benefits for both universities and local businesses, research evidence points to 4 main benefits of internationalisation:

Universities must resist the nationalist times we are living in

1.     Domestic students and staff are exposed to diverse perspectives and cultures within their own academic environment. Without leaving their homes, domestic students and staff are provided with opportunities to gain insights into different worldviews and to enrich their global awareness and intercultural skills.

2.     Domestic students have access to a wider range of programmes of study that are designed to address the global market, which would not exist otherwise. As such, they become competitive not only within their own nations given the presence of international companies, but also outside the borders of their nations.

3.     Domestic students are taught by instructors from different parts of the world. As such, they are being exposed to diverse teaching method, constructing scientific knowledge that transcends national boundaries.

4.     Staff benefit from collaboration with international institutions and have access to a wider range of funding opportunities, exchanges, and research stays, which students benefit from as well.

Internationalisation at home – what a privilege to experience! 

Universities must resist the nationalist, racist, and empire times we are living in. They have a social responsibility to support policymakers and local communities embrace the value of ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, and national diversity. But, before they do that, their staff and students have to embrace that themselves.

Your international students and staff are unwell.

LUCY AVRAAMIDOU

Lucy Avraamidou is professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineeering (FSE) and former columnist of UKrant

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