Research in higher education internationalisation has been largely driven by practitioner-scholars striving to strengthen their collective work and gain recognition of that work as a discipline deserving of scholarship. This research has come in the form of standardised best practices, models, frameworks, strategies and definitions. The most cited definition of higher education internationalisation has been by Knight (2004), where she describes the phenomena as “the process of integrating international, intercultural and global dimensions into the purpose, functions or delivery of postsecondary education” (p.11). Subsequently, De Wit and Hunter (2015) revised the definition with added language to Knight’s, as follows (additions bolded and italicised):

“the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society.” (p.3)

Following this definition a fascinating debate (Teferra, 2019, 2020a, 2020b; De Wit, 2019; Lee, 2021) ensued on the use of the word ‘intentional’ in this revised definition. Teferra (2020a) contends that the new definition is “neither descriptive nor normative, but rather unduly prescriptive and curative” (p.169). He argues that there is in fact no intentionality as the global higher education system has been designed to privilege the Global North, thereby coercing the Global South into this structure. This is particularly made evident, for example, through the asymmetrical power dynamics of internationalisation partnerships. 

George Mwangi & Yao (2021) explain that “research on internationalization often centers the USA as the unit of comparison, thus contributing to academic imperialism. Higher education has become the new imperialism, with US institutions dominating” (p.267).  In recent years, a rise in research from researchers from the Global South began to diversify the analytical lens and confront this global dominance and influence. Research into areas of international student issues, access & equity in study abroad and new models of internationalisation have thus emerged, offering alternatives to the previous definitions, approaches and points of view. Much of the literature which defined internationalisation reflected neutral values-systems (Knight, 2012; George Mwangi & Yao, 2021). As stated by George Mwangi & Yao (2021, p.555), “Internationalisation is not just embedded in systems of power; rather, it is a tool used to wield power and therefore cannot be neutral. The process, concept, and construction of internationalization have power in defining which people, organizations, locations/environments, processes, outcomes, and (research) agendas are centered or silenced when HEIs engage globally.” The influence of globalisation on internationalisation continues to perpetuate the unequal power dynamics that distinguish nations and parallel those distinctions between institutions (Matapo & McFall-McCaffery, 2022; Maringe & de Wit, 2016; George Mwangi & Yao, 2021; see also GlobalEd’s page on Critical Internationalization). 

A new definition has emerged for higher education internationalisation. Heleta & Chasi  (2023) have long critiqued the internationalisation models of the Global North and offered perspectives from South Africa which frame the conversation through a decolonial lens. In this new definition, as follows….

“Internationalisation of higher education is a critical and comparative process of the study of the world and its complexities, past and present inequalities and injustices, and possibilities for a more equitable and just future for all. Through teaching, learning, research and engagement, internationalisation fosters epistemic plurality and integrates critical, anti- racist and anti-hegemonic learning about the world from diverse global perspectives to enhance the quality and relevance of education.” (Heleta & Chasi, 2023, pp. 269-270)

…they call on us to confront the system itself in order to centre equity and counter the prevailing dominance of the Global North in how we both position the research of higher education internationalisation as well as our academic interventional practices. The definition proposes a shift in perspective, while born from the South African experience, provides us with an opportunity to nurture greater reflexivity in our scholar-practioner self and engage more mindful, equitable and transformative internationalisation research and practice. 

Works Cited

De Wit, H. (2019). We must end coercion in internationalisation in Africa. University World News, 7. 

De Wit, H., & Hunter, F. (2015). The future of internationalization of higher education in Europe. International Higher Education(83), 2-3. 

George Mwangi, C. A., & Yao, C. W. (2021). US higher education internationalization through an equity-driven lens: An analysis of concepts, history, and research. In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research: Volume 36 (pp. 1-62). 

Heleta, S., & Chasi, S. (2023). Rethinking and redefining internationalisation of higher education in South Africa using a decolonial lens. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 45(3), 261-275. 

Knight, J. (2012). Concepts, rationales, and interpretive frameworks in the internationalization of higher education. The SAGE handbook of international higher education, 27-42. 

Lee, J. J. (2021). International higher education as geopolitical power. In J. J. Lee (Ed.), US power in international higher education (pp. 1-20). Rutgers University Press.

Maringe, F., & de Wit, H. (2016). Global higher education partnerships: Equity and epistemic concerns with distribution and flows of intellectual capital. In Routledge handbook of the sociology of higher education (pp. 299-314). Routledge. 

Matapo, J., & McFall-McCaffery, J. T. (2022). Towards a vā knowledge ecology: mobilising Pacific philosophy to transform higher education for Pasifika in Aotearoa New Zealand. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 44(2), 122-137.  

Teferra, D. (2019). Defining internationalisation – Intention versus coercion. 

Teferra, D. (2020a). The irrelevance of the re-configured definition of internationalisation to the Global South. International Journal of African Higher Education, 7(2). 

Teferra, D. (2020b). From “Dumb” Decolonization to “Smart” Internationalization: A Requisite Transition. In Intelligent Internationalization (pp. 73-79). Brill.


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    Shahrzad kamyab

    The definition of internationalization just like the field itself is evolving, but there’s always two contrasting perspectives, practitioners and scholars and global north vs south definitions.

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