Internationalization of Higher Education and Globalization

The Internationalization of Higher Education is a relatively recent phenomenon, whose meaning has been adapted to the circumstances and challenges that society has imposed on university education over the last decades.

Its origin dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when coordinated and regulated systems of international cooperation began to be developed for the first time, and some university institutions established exchange programmes. This trend reaches its peak after the Second World War, at which time the United Nations (UN), in order to promote peace and understanding among nations, creates specific cooperation and exchange programmes in the field of Higher Education (De Wit and Hunter, 2015), an undoubtedly urgent need after two world wars.

Currently, the Internationalization of Higher Education is defined as the set of policies, programmes and strategies that universities implement to respond to globalization (Altbach, Reisber and Rumbley, 2009 in Pérez-Encinas, 2017). Understanding the relationship between Higher Education and globalization is fundamental, since changes in the economy have caused the initial purposes of cooperation and conciliation to be minimized when compared to other objectives, such as international prestige or economic benefit. In short, universities today are internationalizing to become visible within an enormously competitive global market (Pol, 2017).

Intercultural competence and student mobility

Nevertheless, globalization is not just an economic phenomenon; nowadays, societies are also very diverse. Consequently, developing intercultural competence in students is more necessary than ever. Without it, interpersonal relationships are more difficult and anxiety levels increase when there is an encounter between two cultures (Adalid, Carmona & Vidal, 2018). Therefore, the acceptance of diversity and understanding between different cultural groups are also great challenges of globalization to which Higher Education must respond.

Although it is not a priority in their internationalization strategies, it is true that universities do not remain oblivious to this need and they also promote actions aimed at the development of intercultural competence in students, which make them more employable in the international market and more committed to global problems (Seeber, Cattaneo, Huisman and Paleari, 2017). Among these strategies, mobility is revealed as the star activity.

Internationalization at home: a sustainable alternative

Indeed, we cannot deny that international stays promote global thinking and stimulate the development of intercultural competence. But should we rely solely on mobility? Is it inclusive enough to ensure the development of such competence in all students?

Authors such as Knight (2008; 2014; 2015), De Wit (2011; 2013), De Wit and Hunter (2015), Beelen (2011), Beelen and Jones, (2011; 2015) and Rumbley (2019), great references in the field of Internationalization of Higher Education, warn that mobility should not be considered as the only option for the development of skills in students, since it is only available to a few. In this regard, Beelen (2015 in Huerta-Jiménez and Sánchez, 2018) invites us to reflect on it by asking the following question: if we can only send around 5% or 10% of our students abroad, what do we do with the remaining 90% or 95%? It is essential to implement more internationalization actions at home, which complement mobility.

“Internationalization at Home is the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students within domestic learning environments” (Espelth & Jones, 2015 : 69).

Internationalization of Higher Education and the 2030 Agenda

In the last revision of the term, the authors point out that the Internationalization of Higher Education must not only impact the institution itself, but must also do so outside of it, contributing significantly to society (Hunter and De Wit, 2015).

When we think about how such a contribution could be made, the Sustainable Development Goals inevitably come to mind, a commitment that all United Nations member countries made in 2015 and that is part of the 2030 Agenda: “They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests” (United Nations, n.d.) .

Higher Education has a great responsibility in this regard, since Education for Sustainable Development (Objective 4) is one of the fundamental goals of the 2030 Agenda. For its part, the Internationalization of Higher Education has the obligation to contribute to this purpose and can achieve it in various ways: by launching international and multidisciplinary research projects that provide solutions to common problems (Ramaswamy, 2020); through participation in international networks; by collaborating with different agencies to address global challenges (Hudson, 2018); or implementing an internationalized curriculum aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (Beelen and De Louw, 2020). Next, we are going to focus on this last measure, since we consider it totally feasible, easy to implement and low cost.

How can an internationalized curriculum contribute to the SDGs

Sustainable Development Goal 4, more specifically, section 4.7. specifies: “by 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development” (United Nations, n.d.). In this context, we believe that an internationalized curriculum would contribute to the SDGs for several reasons:

  • Because it is the most effective measure of internationalization at home and would cover all students.
  • Because developing intercultural competence would increase in our students the feeling of empathy and global awareness that are needed to provide solutions to global challenges.
  • Because, by training global citizens, we would be contributing directly to SDG 4.7. and, consequently, to the rest of the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

Through this article we have tried to make a brief approach to the concept of Internationalization of Higher Education and the fundamental role that it plays in Education for Sustainable Development. We have also highlighted the need to develop more internationalization actions at home, since this is the only way to guarantee that 100% of our students are trained as true global citizens.

We have also pointed out that Higher Education institutions seem to direct their internationalization strategies towards economic benefit, rather than towards Education for Sustainable Development. We hope that this short article will serve as a call to reflection, as an invitation to the universities to remember that the origin of this concept is in cooperation and peace; to rethink its objectives for internationalization, giving priority to the training of global citizens, through intercultural awareness, commitment to the SDGs and internationalization for all.

Here are some ideas and resources that can help internationalize the curriculum and align it with the SDGs.


1.1- Virtual exchanges, aka COIL (Collaborative Online Intercultural Learning): promote the use of technology and connect students with people of other nationalities or different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

1.2- Global classes, which consist of teaching an existing course at your university, in conjunction with another institution abroad.

1.3- “Value and promote international education in all disciplines, beyond business and management” (Egron-Pollack, 2018) is a fundamental premise to keep in mind when developing any action related to the internationalization of the curriculum. Engineering and medicine are key subjects to improve the quality of life around the globe, for example. Arts and humanities should not be forgotten as well, since they are cornerstones to shape a cross-cultural curriculum based on empathy and critical thinking skills.

1.4- Books

1.5-  Assessment

1.6- Training in intercultural awareness for teaching and non-teaching staff.


2.1- Learning outcomes aligned with the SDGs.

2.2- Free courses on the Sustainable Development Goals.

2.3-  Examples of good practices to carry them out at your institution.

  • Adalid, M., Carmona, C. and Vidal, J. (2018). Competencias interculturales en Educación Superior: Aspecto clave para la movilidad. Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 18(1), 97-114.
  • Bage, K., Jellinek, N., Pagèze, J., Valcke, J. and Welikala, W. (14 March 2020). An international curriculum fit for Generation Greta. University World News.
  • Beelen, J. (2011). La Internacionalización en casa en una perspectiva global: un estudio crítico del Informe del Estudio Global de la AIU, en Globalización e Internacionalización de la Educación Superior [monográfico en línea]. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), 8(2), 85-100.
  • Beelen, J. and De Louw, E. (28 January 2020). Internationalisation at home: past present and future. European Association of International Education.
  • Beelen, J. and Jones, E. (2015). Redefining Internationalization at home. En A. Curaj, L. Matei, R. Pricopie, J. Salmi y P. Scott (Eds.), The Future of Higher Education and “the European Level” (pp. 59-72). Nueva York: Springer International Publishing. Retrieved
  • De Wit, H. and Hunter, F. (2015). Understanding Internationalization of Higher Education in the European context. En Wit, F. Hunter, L. Howard y E. Egron-Polak (Eds.), Internationalisation of Higher Education, (pp. 41-58). Bruselas: Directorate-General for Internal policies policy department B: structural and cohesion policies culture and education. Retrieved
  • Egron-Polak, E. (February 6, 2018). Sustainable development goals: a New Framework for the Future of International Higher Education? World Education News + Reviews. Retrieved
  • Lang, M. and Schwarzbach-Dobson, P. (13 December 2017). Piecing together a strong partnership for sustainability. European Association of International Education. Retrieved
  • Hsueh, C-M. Streamlining sustainability within the university. European Association of International Education. Retrieved
  • Huerta-Jiménez, C.S. and Sánchez, J. (marzo 2018). How to implement internationalization at home. An interview with Dr. Jos Beelen.
  • Hunter, F. (5 October 2015). What’s in a name? Refocusing internationalisation of higher education. European Association for International Education.
  • De Wit, H. and Hunter, F. (2015). Understanding Internationalization of Higher Education in the European context. En Wit, F. Hunter, L. Howard y E. Egron-Polak (Eds.), Internationalisation of Higher Education, (pp. 41-58). Bruselas: Directorate-General for Internal policies policy department B: structural and cohesion policies culture and education.
  • Knight, J. (2008). The internationalization of higher education: Are we on the right track. Academic matters, 5-9.
  • Knight, J. (Noviembre 2014). La Internacionalización de la educación. El butlletí. Retrieved
  • Knight, J. (2015). Updated Definition of Internationalization. International Higher Education, 2-3. Retrieved
  • Pérez-Encinas, A. (2017). La experiencia de intercambio de estudiantes internacionales: servicios de apoyo formales e informales en la universidad de acogida (Tesis doctoral). Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Retrieved
  • Pol, P. (2017). Espacios regionales de Educación Superior. Educación Superior y Sociedad, 21, 17-37. Retrieved
  • Rumbley, L.E. (17 de abril de 2015). Intelligent Internationalisation: A 21st century imperative. University World News. Retrieved
  • Seeber, M., Cattaneo, M., Huisman, J. (2016). Why do Higher Education Institutions internationalize? An investigation of the multilevel determinants of internationalization rationales. Higher Education. Retrieved


About the author of this article:

Amaia Ojer Sánchez

Amaia has been working in the management of transnational educational projects for more than a decade in Spain and abroad. After all these years in the education field she has come to the conclusion that one of the key subjects that isn’t discussed enough is promoting the development of international and intercultural competences amongst students, and that educators are in fact a strategic resource to train students as global citizens. For this reason, Amaia now helps colleges, educational institutions and universities to prepare their students for the globalized world, advising them on the design and implementation of innovative international educational projects that promote global learning. Learn more about Amaia’s work on her LinkedIn and My International World website.