Authentic, worldwide

Written by the President and Vice-Chancellor at Monash, Professor Margaret Gardner, AO

Note: A version of this article was previously published in Campus Review, 3 August 2015.

There is much more to being an international university than attracting foreign students.

Australia, we proudly tell ourselves, has one of the most international university systems in the world. The recently released Draft National Strategy for International Education shows a deep understanding of Australia's international education success and its hopes to build on that for the future.

The national strategy outlines a broad range of aspirations for the future of international education and what it can do for our nation. What this means when it is part of a project of deep internationalisation will shape the next big goal. For the claim to be an international university is not one that can or should be made lightly.

The world's first universities were inherently international. The oldest university still in operation today, the University of Bologna, was established by students who came to that city to learn from its scholars. They banded together in groups for protection and administrative convenience, each group hiring its own teachers. When those national groups confederated, the university was born. The spirit of internationalism in the formation of these early universities continues in the large numbers of students who choose to study at a university beyond their shores, whether for a whole degree or for a part of their studies.

In research, academics have always collaborated internationally because knowledge has no boundaries. And university academics are drawn from many countries. One need look only at where great academics did their landmark work to realise how international the university tradition is. Nobel Prize winners include Australian Elizabeth Blackburn at University of California at Berkeley in the US; New Zealander Ernest Rutherford at McGill University in Canada; Australian Howard Florey at Oxford; Indian Amartya Sen at Harvard.

Universities, then, have always transcended international borders. So when we say we want to "internationalise" our institutions, we must be striving towards something greater than the character they have always exhibited.

The word 'international' is sometimes used is as a proxy for global reputation. Universities such as Oxford or Harvard are internationally recognised beyond the walls of academe. Australia does not claim any universities with that type of reputation nor do most countries. Instead, the substantial claim that has differentiated the international nature of the Australian university system from most others is the high proportion of international students in our universities. Such students have been a part of the Australian academic tradition since the first Colombo Plan in the 1950s, but did not become a major feature until after the late 1980s, when the Commonwealth government allowed a system of foreign, full-fee-paying students to be built.

International education is now Australia's largest services export. In 2013–14, it contributed $16.3 billion to the Australian economy and more than two-thirds of this contribution came from higher education.

These students have added life and vibrancy to our campuses. When I was an undergraduate, Australian campuses were less diverse. Today, a stroll through an Australian university is multicultural and multiethnic. Not far from my office, a group of Chinese students regularly meet with a boom box to practise their hip-hop dancing.

Yet international student numbers are not a proxy for internationalisation, although they should spur us to it. True internationalisation of a university is a rich quilt. It means the ability of our students to study in nations other than their home country. It means having courses that build global capabilities and understanding and research that addresses global issues. It also means collaborations and alliances with other universities or industry partners and the creation of presences and campuses in places other than the original site of the university.

Why should we want our universities to be internationalised in these ways, and what might we expect?

The answer, first and foremost, is that internationalisation drives excellence. Having international students fuels the need to understand courses and graduate outcomes from an international perspective. Courses need to be shaped with the demands of the world at front of mind, which benefits international and domestic students. A diverse classroom should enhance the student experience and lead to the opportunity to build competence in different cultural contexts.

The graduate should know the world beyond their city and nation in a sense that comprehends understanding of culture. The graduate should understand the leading edge of knowledge and its applications, not only what they can experience in the workplaces near them, and be able to take these understandings into their practice and engagement with others. In this way, they are prepared to draw from the best and to build bridges across nations and cultures that allow excellence to flourish, whether they remain in Australia or move elsewhere.

Australian universities, being charged to undertake research and education, focus on providing the leading edge of knowledge and practice. They focus less on building that cultural understanding and competence in all their graduates that should be the hallmark of an internationalised university. What do the students who come to us from Europe, Asia or the Americas learn (not just observe) of Australian culture and history? What do our Australian students learn of Asia or Europe or other places to prepare them for the exchanges they are likely to make elsewhere or the students from other places with which they will share their courses? To make this cultural learning part of our aspiration is to embrace a large educational task but one worth pursuing.

In research, international collaborations ensure that we are part of knowledge and solutions that are cutting edge and global. The publications that result are more likely to achieve higher citation rates, creating greater impact for their findings. Similarly, international industry engagement brings with it the knowhow and networks to generate applications and impact on a larger scale. Such collaborations have always been part of Australian university research, just as research conducted in Australia has a strong record of international achievement. Being engaged with industry in a meaningful way in research beyond Australian shores has been a less-developed part of our armoury.

As industries develop global supply chains and chains of research and development across countries, and we grapple with global problems that do not confine themselves to national borders, excellence in the application of research for industry and community benefit must be the product of internationalised engagement. We have good examples of undertaking this work where it involves international agency funding to tackle global issues in agriculture, education or health. We have less to show that involves engagement with industry in areas of technological development.

To build deep partnerships with organisations beyond Australia and to be a meaningful part of their research solutions is neither easily achieved nor maintained, yet without this engagement, international excellence is less assured.

The areas outlined above are elements of internationalisation critical to excellence that are beyond many of the normal markers of an international university. But there is one more factor, if the goal is to shift perspective and practice to underpin internationalised education and research as a good in its own right for the long term. This is the contentious area of presences beyond the university's home nation – sometimes called branch campuses.

Since I came to Monash in September last year, I have visited many of Monash's international presences: our Joint Graduate School and Research Institute in Suzhou, China; our Joint Research Institute in Mumbai; our campus in Malaysia; our Alliance partner, Warwick in the UK, and our Centre in Prato.

These are endeavours that will go to the heart of how the university operates in the future. Just as it would have been difficult to predict the Monash of today from the collection of students and staff in a muddy paddock on the outskirts of Melbourne in 1961, the impact of those campuses and presences decades from now is only a dim outline. Not everything will work as intended at its beginnings, nothing ever does. But the overall goal is a key part of internationalisation.

In these campuses, we have built a cadre of students who are spreading into industry and universities. They are drawn from the best in their countries. About 30 per cent of the PhDs in our Mumbai campus are sponsored by industry and about 75 per cent of those who have graduated have been employed in major companies. Within the research undertaken in and with these campuses we are part of national and regional conversations. It has also enhanced engagements with organisations working in Australia and in these locations. It is true of research and also true of education.

To be truly international, we need to stretch beyond our present settings – not just offer what we have to an interested audience. As well as drawing the world in, we must reach out, conducting research and education in different ways and seeking partnerships offshore.

To internationalise will be essential to being excellent. And only by doing so will we get the long-term impact and benefits we would hope for from high-quality universities.