A recent ranking of the world’s newest universities found that the youngest are outperforming their older rivals when it comes to internationalism. Universities continually push their international credentials – so what does ‘internationalism’ really mean, and does it matter?

Internationalism is an experience, rather than a list of statistics. It comes from all areas of university life – research; what and where you study; who you learn with; and who you learn from.

That means it can be difficult to pin down – especially as a university is unlikely to claim that it isn’t international.

To find out if a particular university’s brand of internationalism is right for you, it’s worth talking to existing students or getting advice from an independent counsellor who has detailed knowledge of a number of universities.

Conducting international research

One of the reasons the young universities perform so well in the Times’ Higher Education ranking is because of their global research. The younger universities often focus on newer research areas – and these tend to be worldwide issues.  

The Autonomous University of Barcelona, which ranked highly in the survey, uses ‘research communities’. These include researchers from different subject areas, who work together on global challenges like smart cities, cultural heritage and mental health.

But does it really matter if your lecturers are researching with international colleagues? Well, yes. Lecturers use their own research in what they teach you, and if they are working globally then you are exposed to international ideas that may give you an advantage when you apply for jobs.

If your professor’s research partners visit your institution (for a conference, meeting or similar) it’s likely that they will deliver a guest seminar – exposing you to new ideas, different teaching styles and a better understanding of issues facing your sector in another country. It gives you a much deeper learning experience, and can impress employers at interviews.

Studying and working internationally

For many people, an ‘international student experience’ means opportunities to study abroad. Most universities offer some form of study abroad (often a semester at another institution) so it can be difficult to decide whether this really is a signal of how international the university is, unless you know which questions to ask.

When you’re looking at a university, you might want to ask:

  • How many institutions do you have partnerships with? If the only option is to study in a small town with no transport links, in a country where you don’t speak the language, then the ‘study abroad’ option may be less appealing.
  • How many students take up the option to study abroad? If the numbers are low, it may indicate a lack of support when applying; a restricted choice of what you can study; or a university culture that simply isn’t as international as is claimed.
  • What support is there for studying abroad? Will you get help choosing an institution and applying, and can you study the relevant language as part of your qualification?

Working abroad

One of the most useful international experiences can be a placement abroad, sometimes for as long as a year. Again, asking the right questions is vital in deciding how likely it is that you will get the experience you want.

The university website won’t advertise the fact that just one or two students take up placements, nor that their students worked in a burger joint for nine months. Good questions are:

  • How many international placements do you advertise to students each year?
  • Do you help with visas and work permits?
  • What types of positions did students get last year? In which countries?
  • How many placements were paid placements?

Language options

Most universities offer ‘languages’ of some description, but you will need to dig deeper if this is important to you. Questions you might want to ask are:

  • Do my language studies count towards my degree? Languages are often offered as ‘option’ or ‘elective’ classes, but some courses include very few electives, and other institutions count your language study as part of your degree – meaning you have it in addition to your main studies.
  • Which languages can I study? If you have a burning desire to work in China, it’s worth checking that Mandarin is available before you apply. A university that only offers two or three of the main European languages may not be offering a holistic international experience.
  • What level can I study to? If you want to get really good at one language, it’s worth checking the level it’s offered at. You may find that you can take a language at entry level, but a lack of student demand means it isn’t available at intermediate or advanced level. Many institutions design language modules to build on the level expected of students who studied a language at high school – it’s worth checking this so you don’t want to repeat what you’ve already learned at school.
  • What is the purpose of the course? Some language courses focus on culture or grammatical foundations, whereas others concentrate on report writing, skills for a professional environment, or even vocabulary related to your degree subject specialism.  

International people

International people

The diversity of the student population can be a good indication of how international a university is – and the mix of faculty is just as important.

Studying alongside students from other countries gives you an international network as you start your career, and your lecturers will also have worldwide contacts that you can use.

The experiences and perspectives of people who have lived and worked in different countries gives group discussions a greater depth and interest. A lecturer with international experience will have a broader range of examples and case studies to draw upon, giving you a more rounded understanding of your subject.

An international student mix also gives you an incredible social and cultural life, as your Indian colleagues in England introduce their Latin American friends to cricket; your flatmate teaches you to cook; and virtually every week you celebrate with someone, be it for St Patrick’s Day, The Day of the Dead, Chinese New Year or the Midsummer Solstice.

Does internationalism really matter?

If working internationally isn’t important to you then you don’t necessarily need an international approach. However, there are fewer and fewer jobs that don’t involve international collaboration.

Employers love to see candidates who can speak languages, who understand cultural differences, who show the maturity and independence that comes from time spent in another country, and who can work well with all kinds of people.

There is a very simple reason why universities are so keen to build a reputation for internationalism: it attracts the best academics, more students, and organisations who want to recruit employable graduates.

Case study: Manchester Business School, UK

“On my MBA there were students from 28 countries. The professors came from Portugal, Iraq, China, Hungary, the USA, South Korea, Greece…and many had worked around the world.

“I spent a semester in Canada, and my final project – the International Business Project – involved investigating a Middle Eastern market for a European client. When I was in Canada, my flatmate went to Sweden on internship.

“During every discussion, your classmates bring different perspectives that you don’t get if you are all from the same country. You quickly learn how things are done differently in other cultures. When you start working, you can work and negotiate confidently with colleagues and clients from all over the world.

“The MBA gave me an international network, professionally and socially. Ten years’ on from the MBA, I can travel pretty much anywhere in the world and meet up with someone from my MBS network”.