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Developing inclusivity via digitalised international HE

Written by: Kalinga Seneviratne

The COVID-19 pandemic forced higher education institutions to go online to continue and survive, sparking a debate on whether going digital can provide greater opportunities for internationalisation of higher education at a lower cost.

An online workshop series offered by Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (SHARE) – the European Union’s flagship higher education programme with ASEAN – and the Singapore-based Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which began on 16 November, included sessions on digitisation, inclusion and international mobility.

The workshops spread over five weeks attended by 33 higher education educators from ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) noted that one size cannot fit all in promoting internationalisation in a digitised environment.

Having Europe-Southeast Asia collaborations did not mean the latter would adopt European models, Romyen Kosaikanont, director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development (RIHAD), told University World News.

“The internationalisation process is all about collaboration not domination of any particular party. I see more benefits of collaboration between Europe and Southeast Asia on a regional basis,” Kosaikanont said, adding issues around differences in culture and standards found in Southeast Asia are also present in Europe.

Keiko Ikeda, vice director at the Institute for Innovative Global Education at Kansai University in Japan, noted during a workshop: “One change likely to remain after the pandemic is intensified use of digital technologies in the delivery and the management of higher education.” She added that the challenge is to make the systems more inclusive.

Kansai University runs a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) programme where students from different countries enrol in shared courses, with the faculty members from each country co-teaching and managing coursework. Supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the COIL programme now has 41 universities, five of them from the United States.

“Before the pandemic in 2019, we had 25 applicants and only 16 students were able to actually join – we raised over JPY202 million [US$1.8 million] to support their travelling and accommodation costs,” Ikeda explained.

“When we turned the programme into 100% online in 2020 and 2021, we received 282 applicants and we were able to take 219 students from over 66 institutions … in terms of inclusion we can say that virtual exchange and the COIL programme was more successful than the physical mobility programme.”

Virtual internationalisation

A programme to be launched in February 2022 called Japan Multilateral COIL Project (J-MCP) would be a virtual internationalisation programme with multiple instructors from partner institutions, collaborating to deliver a virtual exchange curriculum available to a network of international universities.

For online students to experience another culture, which for exchange students mainly occurs outside the classroom, “this is a very, very important element,” Ikeda told University World News, “and because it’s online you have to have intentional intercultural modules designed within the programme”.

She said: “If you assume that people will just encounter [each other] virtually in two groups for discussions and they will cultivate their intercultural competence – that’s not going to happen.”

But she noted that even with physical student exchanges, some are not attuned to picking up that cultural experience. “Intercultural competencies and intentional attention to modules to actually raise that skill is very important,” she said.

Kosaikanont from Thailand said: “Internationalisation must be an intentional process, so it’s not accidental and the attempt is to integrate the global dimension into all aspects of the university’s operations and to enhance the quality of education and research.”

For internationalisation to succeed, she warned, just including more diverse people in education, and bringing in internationalisation structures may not work. People must be engaged strategically in the whole process.

She added that there needs to be a sense of belonging. “How do we make a space for people to express their feelings, their ideas, their visions, their needs? … to have that kind of space [is important].”

Kosaikanont noted that while she was working at Mae Fah Luang University, near Thailand’s borders with Laos and Myanmar, she realised that international activity between universities needed to focus on demystifying the many existing misconceptions about each other’s countries.

“To build a better understanding of our region, having this understanding should work as a foundation for us to continue our work to create original visions and goals together,” Kosaikanont said. “We can’t aim for something bigger without a shared vision.”

Inclusive internationalisation and ‘mobility’

Advantages of internationalisation and international mobility are even greater for under-represented groups, the workshop on inclusion heard.

“Going abroad has a lot of advantages and research is also indicating that those advantages are even [more] magnified for students of under-represented groups,” noted Valérie Van Hees, coordinator of the Support Centre for Inclusive Higher Education (SIHO) at Artevelde University of Applied Sciences in Belgium.

SIHO has set up a website InclusiveMobility.eu providing information on inclusion and support services offered by institutions, national agencies and ministries for student exchange programmes in 49 European countries.

“In the European context we see that only 7% of students are participating from under-represented groups, so we should create more chances for those students,” she said pointing to working students and students from refugee backgrounds as being among those under-represented groups.

“Similar to other students, they also want to live abroad, improve career prospects and expand their network” added Van Hees.

Van Hees told the workshop that quality standards do not need to be lowered to give access to higher education to under-represented peoples. “It’s really about [developing] a culture of inclusivity.”

She added: “We have to see this as affirmative action, helping them to actually get to that standard.”

Kosaikanont acknowledged difficulties in including some groups. Responding to a question from a participant about including Myanmar refugees in Thailand’s student mobility programmes, she said this was difficult as entry to refugee camps is restricted and it requires working with non-governmental organisations.

Baiba Petersone, director of the department of academic and international affairs at Riga Stradins University, Latvia, said her university has 9,300 students, a quarter of them international students from 60 countries.

“For internationalisation to be truly inclusive it is very important that it is supported by the management and that they do not pay lip service to internationalisation” she warned.

The university promotes internationalisation by continuous education for teachers “where they learn how to work with international classrooms and how to include the international global element in the study curriculum”, she explained.

An international students’ unit provides services to international students at the university, but the university also has a scheme to support their own students going on exchanges to about 200 other universities.

The most important is to “provide grants and stipends that cover the actual expenses – it is important to us that we know that students can really afford to be relaxed and study at our partner institutions”, she said.

Action plans for inclusive internationalisation

ASEF received some 154 applications to participate in the workshops from all 10 ASEAN member countries. Only 33 were selected to keep the numbers small for “real networking”, said Reka Tozsa, senior project manager at ASEF’s education department.

By exchanging experiences and good practices with each other, the hope is that by the end of the workshop programme, participants “will go away with new knowledge, new innovative ideas and the peer network with colleagues from the region who are all interested in enhancing inclusion in internationalisation”, Tozsa added.

Each participant has to submit an action plan at the end of the workshop series.

“They are working on actions plans to make internationalisation activities in their institutions more inclusive,” Leonie Nagarajan, director of ASEF’s education department, told University World News.

Areas that need to be addressed include widening access to international mobility, virtual exchanges and collaborative online intercultural learning, she explained.

Nagarajan said the action plans could feed into the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) Education Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok on 14-15 December, hosted by Thailand, to “contribute to advance inclusive internationalisation of higher education in ASEAN”.

The workshop participants are expected to start implementing them in their own institutions starting next year.

“We hope to sustain a community of practice, where they can discuss their progress, challenges, etc, over time,” concluded Nagarajan.

This article part of a series in collaboration with ASEF and EU-SHARE in the run-up to the ASEM Education Ministers’ Meeting in December 2021. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Written by: Kalinga Seneviratne. Click HERE for the original article.

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