The Elusive Concept of Internationalisation of the Curriculum

Valerie Clifford, 2013

Universities in many parts of the world have been ‘internationalising’ for a number of decades, the emphasis being on encouraging the mobility of students and collaborative research. While altruistic aims have been articulated, economic considerations have been to the forefront. Internationalisation in these terms is now generally understood but the concept of internationalising the curriculum (IoC) still causes consternation (Clifford, 2009; Green and Mertova, 2011) the recent surge of interest in internationalising the curriculum for global citizenship has further added to levels of concern (Clifford and Montgomery, 2011).

An internationalised curriculum may have several recognisable components: global perspectives; intercultural communication; and socially responsible citizenship. The emphasis placed on these components will reflect how the institution, the discipline and the teaching staff conceptualise internationalisation.

Early attempts at internationalisation often involved the additive approach (Banks, 1999) of including an international case study in the curriculum to show awareness of historical, local and global perspectives. Bremer and van der Wende (1995) saw the enhancing of student knowledge and comprehension of different countries as enabling students to compare their institutions and systems to those of others and to analyse events and problems from an international perspective.

Other approaches have focused on student interaction and cross-cultural understanding, Olson and Kroeger (2001) saw sensitivity to the perspective of others, a willingness to try and put oneself in the shoes of others and see how things might look from their perspective, as an essential part of intercultural competence. Nilsson (2003) also had a strong focus in this area seeing: broadmindedness; understanding; respect and empathy for other people, their culture, values and way of life; and an understanding of the nature of racism, as integral to intercultural competence.

More recently interest has increased in fundamentally rethinking curriculum so that graduates are equipped to live and work successfully in our interdependent, multicultural world (a transformative approach).  Schoorman (2000:5) exemplifies this approach with her definition:

Internationalization is an ongoing, counter hegemonic educational process which occurs in an international context of knowledge and practice where societies are reviewed as subsystems of a larger inclusive world. The process of internationalization at an educational institution entails a comprehensive, multifaceted program of action that is integrated into every aspect of education.

Schoorman, like Knight (2003) emphasises the comprehensive, ongoing, multifaceted and integrated nature of internationalisation, but her counterhegemonic stance and program of action speaks to a transformative curriculum.

Schoorman’s definition is embedded in critical pedagogy which makes it necessarily counter-hegemonic. Critical pedagogy critiques the use of education to support current economic systems, the offering of a limited range of cultural perspectives and use of a teacher-centred pedagogy (Aronwitz and Giroux, 1991). A counter-hegemonic curriculum would see the context as one of global economic interdependence, and the need to prepare students through active pedagogies, for their multicultural, interdependent world. The context of the curriculum also needs to move beyond Western-Eurocentric topics and views to incorporate a range of perspectives and ideas (Andreotti, 2011). A counter-hegemonic approach is also rooted in ideas of democracy and social justice, the goals of society being to make the world a better place for all its citizens.

A critical pedagogy approach also demands a student-centred pedagogy with students actively engaged in the construction of knowledge, teachers moving to the role of facilitator of learning, developing students’ skills of critical thinking, analysis and reflection (Brookfield, 2005). This environment builds students’ interpersonal skills and sense of ethics.

Ethics with a belief in equity, justice and sustainability have always been central to IoC (Giroux, 1992; Whalley, 1997; Nilsson, 2003) and was expressed by Edwards et al. (2003) as the need for students to develop a sense of responsibility towards themselves, towards others and toward future generations and to feel a sense of empowerment and self efficacy. The new focus on the concept of global citizenship brings the values agenda into stark relief (Clifford and Montgomery, 2011). Educating students for global citizenship requires not only a knowledge of the world but also a concern and a willingness to act. These ideas are challenging personally and intellectually and can cause discomfort and distress (Reid and Hellsten, 2008; Nussbaum, 2004). Whalley (1997) stressed the need for us to identify limitations in our personal and professional lives arising from our ethnocentrism and Giroux (1998) saw the need to provide safe spaces for students to critically engage teachers and other students.

The attempts to define IoC and introduce ideas of global citizenship demonstrate that it is a process that critically engages with the notions of social and cultural differences in our educational environments and aims to achieve transformations of knowledge and power. Banks (1999) argues that IoC entails teachers and students making paradigm shifts and understanding the perspectives of different, racial, culture and gender groups. Students and educators can then develop multicultural awareness and skills so as to be responsible, understanding, creative and effective national and global citizens. This concept of IoC calls on institutions of higher education to provide their students with an education that will allow them to live successful personal and professional lives that contribute to the future welfare of the planet and its peoples.

The definition offered by Oxfam  (2006) sums up this approach.

A global citizen is someone who:

  • Is aware of the wider world and has a sense of their own role as a world citizen;
  • Respects and values diversity;
  • Has an understanding of how the world works economically, politically, socially, culturally, technologically and environmentally;
  • Is outraged by social injustice;
  • Participates in and contributes to the community at a range of levels from local to global;
  • Is willing to act to make the world a more sustainable place; and
  • Take responsibility for their actions.


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