Report maps ‘huge’ shifts in internationalisation on campuses

When compared with 2016-20 data, the COVID-19 crisis of 2020-21 caused a drop of 24 percentage points – from 64% to 40% – in university and college administrators who said the overall level of their institution’s internationalisation was “very high”, “high” or “moderate”, says a just released study by the American Council on Education (ACE).

The survey of 903 colleges and universities found the percentage of institutions reporting that internationalisation was a “low” priority grew by one-third to 32%, while those considering internationalisation a “very low” priority almost doubled to 28%.

The decline documented in ACE’s report, Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses: 2022 edition, accords with data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) a few weeks ago. NSCRC found that between fall 2020 and fall 2022, there were 8.4% fewer international students on America’s campuses. The greatest decline, 17.2%, occurred in the public four-year institutions, the largest sector in American higher education.

“Mapping is really the only report of its kind to look at internationalisation holistically,” says Dr Maria Claudia Soler, ACE’s senior research analyst, learning and engagement division (research), and lead author of the report.

“This iteration of the survey is particularly special because we knew we were collecting data in a time that made internationalisation efforts extremely difficult for institutions due to the pandemic, so we adjusted the survey to capture pre-pandemic and COVID-era trends and we captured post-pandemic outlook and changes around the different areas of ACE’s model for comprehensive internationalisation.

“While the pandemic impacted internationalisation across the board and many internationalisation activities were disrupted, we also observed serendipitous outcomes. For instance, institutions used technology to expand virtual international internships, international student recruitment and course-level collaborations in ways that used to be unthinkable some years ago.

“This was huge in terms of access as the use of technology created pathways for students to participate in COIL [collaborative online international learning] or international internship programmes and allowed students who may have previously been excluded from participating in such programmes the opportunity to engage in global learning.

“These results are exciting as they speak about institutional resiliency and creativity in a period of challenge for higher education,” she says, summarising the 74-page report.

Pre-COVID declines

Expectedly, the COVID-19 crisis saw a substantial increase in the percentage of administrators reporting that internationalisation was decreasing in their institutions.

For example, at the baccalaureate level, this figure dropped from 40% to 20%, and at the doctoral level, it dropped from about 43% to 20%. Concomitantly, at the baccalaureate level the percent indicating that internationalisation had declined rose from near zero to 35%: at the doctoral level the percent rose from about 5% to above 25%.

However much closed campuses and travel bans affected the number of administrators reporting that their campuses experienced drops in internationalisation, the declines predated the COVID-19 crisis.

Between 2016 and 2020, administrators of doctoral programmes reported a drop of about 10% in the numbers of administrators reporting that internationalisation was “somewhat accelerating”, while the baccalaureate level saw a decline from near 65% to 40%. Each level saw the percent reporting that internationalisation had “not accelerated” move from near 0% to 5%.

After a decade of historic growth in internationalisation and international enrolment, rates of internationalisation began to decline. One reason, according to ACE, is that countries that had been sending students overseas started encouraging competitive students to remain at domestic institutions.

As well, during this period, American domestic politics, under then president Donald Trump, made the United States a less desirable destination for many international students from the developing world.

According to Soler, during the Trump administration “there was also concern that changes and issues with federal immigration policy (eg, visa processing slowdowns) contributed to this decline. The Biden administration has tried to reverse Trump-era policies that discouraged international students from travelling to the US.”

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