How International Education’s Golden Age Lost Its Sheen

Map with houses
Courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education

"On a Sunday in May 2014, 140 students from 49 countries, some in hijabs, some with hair tinted purple to match their graduation robes, walked across the stage to collect the first diplomas awarded at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Former President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker. But the day really belonged to John E. Sexton, NYU’s president. He greeted every student – many of whom he knew from the 14,000-mile round trip he made from New York every other week to teach – with a fist bump or a hug.


In hindsight, that commencement, held on NYU’s campus, not far from the Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre, came at the height of what was a golden moment for international education – and one that would soon dim.

It was an era in which higher education found ways to export its prestige, assert itself as a vehicle for American soft power, and facilitate the exchange of people and ideas across borders. American universities joined NYU in opening campuses abroad, including Yale in Singapore and Duke in China. Colleges hired senior administrators to manage their burgeoning overseas portfolios, including student exchanges, faculty research, and joint degrees. 

First Lady Michelle Obama declared study abroad a “key component of this administration’s foreign policy” as the White House rolled out a plan to send 100,000 young Americans to China. And Chinese students led a surge of international students onto American campuses. Their numbers would increase nearly 90 percent, to 1.1 million, an influx welcomed not least because of the tuition dollars they paid.


The golden era of international education was accompanied by grand aspirations, frequently evoked in college mission statements and strategic plans. It was supposed to be comprehensive, embedded in classroom learning, in faculty research, in the student experience. To a large extent, however, the focus has been on student mobility – bringing students from abroad to campus and, to a lesser extent, sending them out. 

Has internationalization only been skin deep?

The attention to mobility is natural, says Joanna Regulska, vice provost and associate chancellor of global affairs at the University of California at Davis. Many people in the field went into it because they were once international students, as she was, or studied abroad.


Necessity is leading to the adoption of new approaches.



Regulska, at UC-Davis, takes a similar view. Rather than talking about internationalization as a goal in itself, she sees it as a way of helping to achieve the university’s mission. She casts international education as serving a goal that colleges are increasingly embracing: student success."

Read the full article at The Chronicle of Higher Education