International education has entailed multiple, interrelated and shifting purposes for different stakeholders: government, institutions, staff, students and related communities. The shifts in international education over the past century have been driven by evolving historical, geopolitical, social and economic processes.
There is a tendency to align inbound and outbound mobilities, transnational education and research partnerships, and internationalisation at home more closely to economic, social and geopolitical interests. Accordingly, developments in international education have resulted in shifts in the positioning of international students.
International education as an aid to trade is among the most cited shifts. Until the early 1980s, international education was used as an aid vehicle for developed countries to assist newly independent nations with knowledge exchange and human capacity building.
Since 1980, international education has been influenced by neoliberal principles and the liberalisation of trade and market forces. In line with this shift, international students have been seen more as commodities than aid recipients.
International education as aid often goes hand in hand with international education as soft power, where provider countries use it and scholarships as tools to influence aid recipients.
The Colombo Plan by Australia, the Fulbright Programme by the United States and development programmes for socialist countries put forward by the Soviet Union were driven by both aid and the soft power purposes of provider countries. In line with this goal, international students have been positioned as actors of public diplomacy or soft power.
The changing purposes of internationalisation
Another distinctive shift is in the view of international education’s purposes, from cultural exchange and mutual understanding to politicisation and weaponisation.
The traditional goals of enhancing human, institutional and country connections and regional harmony embedded in international education have become less important due to growing geopolitical tensions, especially between the major providing and receiving countries of international students. When international education is weaponised, international students are vulnerable to being positioned as political tools or geopolitical objects.
Another shift is in the conception of international education from colonisation to collaboration or partnership. During colonisation, colonisers such as France in Vietnam and the Netherlands in Indonesia aimed to impart ‘Western’ knowledge and perspectives to students and scholars in the colonised nations in line with the economic and political interests of colonial powers.
This form of colonisation through international education has shifted to partnership in international education in recent years, where both Vietnam and Indonesia have become more equal players, partners and collaborators in international education relationships with France and the Netherlands. Within this trend, international students have been positioned as partners or bridges in knowledge exchange and cooperation.
From colonisation to recolonisation
The past century has also witnessed the evolution of international education from colonisation to decolonisation to recolonisation. Vietnam is a case in point.
International education as multiple forms of colonisation occurred in Vietnam during the eight decades of French colonisation and the more than two decades of American occupation and Russian influence under the Soviet model of higher education. After the ending of the Vietnam War in 1975, the country began the reconstruction and decolonisation of education to build an independent education system.
The country’s aspiration to catch up with higher education levels in the region and the world led the government to introduce the Advanced Programme in 2006. This signature project aimed to internationalise the curriculum and boost the quality of teaching and learning by importing curricula from prestigious universities ranked among the top 200 in the world. Recolonisation thus happened through passive curriculum borrowing from Western universities and its unintended consequences.
Yet international education could also be a vehicle for de-colonisation, with international students being its agents. The mobility scheme for Vietnamese students to France during the French colonisation in Indochina, which started in 1862, is a unique programme in the world where the intentions of internationalisation backfired.
During their colonisation of Vietnam, the French government initiated a mobility programme that was intended to send Vietnamese scholars to study in France to learn about the ‘superior’ principles of French civilisation so that they would be equipped to serve the colonial aspirations of the French government upon their return to their home country.
However, study abroad in France made these young Vietnamese men become progressive-minded and exposed them to ideologies of democracy, national independence, freedom and revolution. These international students came back to Vietnam and actively promoted nationalism, becoming a leading force to fight against French colonisation. With the Battle of Dien Biên Phu in 1954, French colonisation in Indochina was brought to an end.
In other contexts, international education has contributed to re-balancing regional student mobilities, repositioning former colonised countries as transformative host locations for students from former colonisers. For example, former colonised countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have become mobility destinations of growing popularity for students from a Western country such as Australia.
In particular, the New Colombo Plan is the Australian government’s signature mobility and public diplomacy initiative to send Australian students to the Indo-Pacific for international experiences. As such, the New Colombo Plan is a landmark in the history of student mobility, amplifying the reverse mobility trend tied to the Global North to Global South learning abroad flow.
Tackling global challenges
In some parts of the world, such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, international education is now seen as being developmentalist and as a mechanism for a nation’s human capacity building and for keeping pace with regional developments. Internationalised programmes and initiatives are regarded as a means to lift the quality of education and a nation’s workforce.
International education has also been seen as a vehicle to address skills shortages, a tool for skilled migration and nation-building by countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. As part of this agenda, international students are regarded as a force to address skills shortages and as prospective highly skilled migrants.
There have been repeated calls in recent years for the need to fulfil the social responsibility of international education. In line with this, international students could be seen as a driving force to tackle global and local major concerns such as climate change, inequalities, injustices, geopolitical conflicts and wars.
The geopolitics of international HE
As international education is increasingly dependent on public policies related to geopolitics, socio-economics, migration, workforce and post-study work rights, international students have been subject to multiple, interrelated and shifting positionings: as aid recipients, as commodities, as actors of soft power, as ambassadors for country-to-country and regional relationships, as geoolitical tools, as agents for colonisations, decolonisation and recolonisation, as a driving force for social change, as potential migrants for host nations and as a nation-building force for their home nations.
These developments over the past century have helped to diversify international education, but at the same time have geared it towards commercialisation and geopoliticalisation.
Despite these shifts, international education for academic purposes remains one of the key driving forces for international students and its aspirations to enhance transnational knowledge, skills and intercultural development are still prominent.
The ultimate goal of international education should be to enrich human beings. It is therefore crucial to draw on international education for strengthening human capacity and human-to-human, institution-to-institution, country-to-country and regional relationships.
Ly Tran is a professor in the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Ly has published extensively on internationalisation of education, international students, international graduate employability, Indo-Pacific student mobility and comparative and Vietnamese higher education. Ly’s research and publications can be found in this profile. This is an edited version of Ly Tran’s keynote talk in June 2023 at Boston College Centre for International Higher Education’s Biennial Conference on International Higher Education.