Truly international

Becoming a truly international university by going abroad physically or online is not just a choice: it is necessary for survival.

The restricted food diversity in the canteen of our university is experienced as a culinary shock by international staff and students. However, this article is not about food, nor is it about the fact that none of the members of the board of trustees – those who appoint the president and the rector of the university – has an international background. This article is about a more urgent aspect of what it means to be a truly international university today.

The first universities in various European countries were founded to meet the regional needs for educating administrators, clerics and teachers. Most of the students used to come from the local surrounding area. For centuries, the region and later the nation were, and remain, the main source of students. Lately, this situation has been changing.

Various EU programs, notably Erasmus, facilitate student mobility. Furthermore, students from East Asia discovered that the UK, the United States and Australia are not the only countries where the language of instruction is English. Our university is about to offer most of its programmes in that language, about ten per cent of our students come from abroad and we have the ambition to increase this number.

‘Vital importance’

Is this necessary? The answer is that we may have no other choice. The number of Dutch students will decline after 2020 due to demographic developments. If we rely mainly on Dutch students, this will result in dropping revenues and painful personnel reductions. Therefore, attracting more foreign students is of vital importance.

The challenge is that all Dutch and many other European universities also know this. They are all reaching for a larger piece of the pie of international students coming from emerging economies. Universities in some countries, like Denmark, are in a better competitive position because they do not ask for tuition fees. So, what can we do in this situation?

There are two main ways to increase international revenues. The first one is by opening a branch in a country with a large population eager to acquire higher education and able to pay for it. There are a number of examples of elite British and American universities doing this; some of them profile themselves as global research universities.

The second way is by providing distance learning to students abroad. One of my former PhD students came from Malta. He had received his bachelor degree from the University of London, but did not attend any courses in London – he got his degree in Malta while living with his parents. Similarly, I regularly get Indian applicants for a PhD position with a degree from Carnegie Mellon University. But they have not been in Pittsburgh; they obtain their CMU degrees in India.

Go abroad

The way to be a truly international university today is to go abroad physically by opening a branch or by offering online education.

The expected decline in the number of Dutch students after 2020 is not the only concern. A disruptive educational technology change might cause a more serious problem. In a previous article in this publication, I warned that we should brace ourselves for a kind of ‘tsunami’ in higher education: elite (American) universities will eat up our lunch by offering online courses and glossy diplomas.

To those who say we have always had an ever-growing number of students and this will remain so, I will retell the story of Bertrand Russell’s inductivist turkey: the turkey observed that it was duly fed every single day by its master, hence it happily concluded by induction that this would continue in the future. And it did – until Christmas. Do we want to have a Christmas turkey on the (university canteen) table, or to become a Christmas turkey ourselves?

Becoming a truly international university by going abroad physically or online is not just a choice: it is necessary for survival.

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science and chairman of the Science Faction in the University Council.