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Internationalisation- what is it all about?

One of the most widely discussed issues in high-flying universities right now is internationalisation. Susan Bassnett FRSL, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor in the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, looks at what it actually means and how it might differ from what has gone before.

An international campus

As anyone walking around the Warwick campus can see, the population today is indeed international. Every year thousands of students from around the world apply to Warwick programmes. The lucky few find themselves living in the lovely Warwickshire countryside, on a campus that has grown beyond all recognition in the last two decades. Indeed, from being a small radical institution in the 1960s, Warwick has been transformed into one of the UK’s top ten universities. Its population has increased beyond the wildest dreams of the pioneering academics and students who first ventured onto what was then little more than a building site in a field in the early years.

Unprecedented movement

The increased international population of academics and students at Warwick reflects broader social trends. Millions of people move around the planet today on an unprecedented scale. Some are driven by wars, famine or persecution to leave their homelands and seek a new life elsewhere, many move for improved opportunities and better jobs, or to acquire an international education. The English-speaking world has enjoyed a great advantage in such a climate: since English has become such an important language globally, studying in English is an aspiration for many students, whether the variety of English is British, North American or Antipodean. During the 1990s, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of former Communist countries, plus the open door policy pursued by the expanding economic power that is China, English-speaking universities could rest assured that their international numbers would grow steadily.

Double advantage

Today however, we have to rethink what we understand by internationalisation. Although the demand to learn English is high, it carries its own disadvantage. The strength of learning another language is that you are able to access another culture, to understand other ways of thinking. This has great advantages in the job market. Those overseas students who come to study in the UK are doubly advantaged: they leave with a UK degree and with an excellent command of English. In contrast, home students, unless they have studied a language, leave as they arrived, that is as monolinguals, and perhaps even more significantly, without any first-hand awareness of cultural diversity.

Catastrophic decline

At least one leading UK university is reintroducing a compulsory foreign language entry requirement, but with the catastrophic decline of language teaching in state schools such a decision is bound to be controversial. What is needed is a much broader strategy, an internationalisation plan that goes out beyond the purely linguistic. Although it is valuable to learn another language, it is possible to learn a great deal about cultural differences in other ways.

Cultural awareness

International business has long recognised the importance of cultural awareness training: differences in business practices, in timekeeping, in politeness, in the managing of formal and informal meetings, in the importance of hospitality, in dress and body language codes that are vitally significant and can all be taught. Students in a genuinely internationalised university should be undertaking such training, which will be invaluable when they start to compete in the international job market.

Information flow

What can also be taught, even without knowledge of another language, is how complex the process of transferring information across languages can be. My Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on global news translation, for example, studied the ways in which the news we read about or listen to has been constructed across language frontiers, passing through all kinds of processes of translation, editing and rewriting. Students need to be made aware of the processes that affect information flows in our global world, so alongside cultural awareness training, the study of translation as a shaping force in world affairs should also be taught as part of a basic university education.

Internationalisation in education, business and trade is unstoppable; what we in leading universities need to do is equip our students for the future. Joining a cosmopolitan academic community is one step in the right direction; what we need to do now is find ways of equipping students with the right tools that will enhance the quality of their Warwick degrees even further.


You can find out more about the Translation in Global News Project on their website.

For more information on internationalisation:

  • Bielsa, Esperança and Hughes, Christopher, Globalization, Political Violence and Translation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
  • Bielsa, Esperança and Bassnett, Susan, Translation in Global News London (Routledge, 2008)