Why Internationalize?

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As part of his (at-home) road-show to sell his plans for the institution, the President of the European University Institute, Joseph Weiler, has been touting a plan to increase the “internationalisation” of the EUI. He points out that the ideal of cross-national, cross-cultural study at the root of the EUI‘s founding has now been surpassed – and then some. Indeed, at top-rated French or British school, one not only finds students and scholars from across Europe, but a student body filled to the brim with Asians, South Americans, occasional Africans.

Weiler’s plan is partly instrumental, designed to shore up the case for the EUI among the member states and the Commission, in a context where austerity politics have led to an unsurprising fall in support for university funding among policy priorities. The strategy pursued here – taking austerity for granted, and trying to figure out, not how to deal with the bear, but how to run faster than the other guys – presents an interesting case study in the interaction between institutional citizenship and broader political citizenship.

The other obvious question is why this plan might work (taking into account that the idea is only one among many proposed by Weiler to dig out a financially-secure niche for the EUI). The instrumental value of internationalization – making the EUI look more cutting innovative, presenting it as a “good investment” – depends in turn on the idea that there is some intrinsic value to cross-cultural engagement in academic study.

This is a popular idea, one pursued with passionate intensity by a number of university administrators and public officials. Paul Well’s, a Canadian journalist, has provided a summary of the reasons proposed by a recent report from the president of Western University:

First, travel is broadening, new perspectives, yadda yadda. Impossible to measure but probably true. Second, that some portion of international students who come to Canada stay after study and add to our human capital. People like Amit Chakma. Third, that even if they go home, that’s not a loss because it adds to a global network of highly-talented people who owe Canada a lot and are likely to stay in touch. Finally, that drawing your students and researchers from a wider pool raises the bar for every participant: a university that recruits globally is a better and more challenging university than one which recruits only locally.

It seems to me that much of the advantage for the EUI, and for its European funders, lies in the “yadda yadda.” Indeed, the whole idea of the working group behind this blog seems to come from the same place.