Reviewing Internationalisation in Irish HE

Hardly a day passes in these times of Plague without the publication of news or views on the internationalisation of Irish Higher Education. In Ireland – as elsewhere – the main issues bringing the question of student mobility into the headlines are the huge costs charged to incoming students and the huge associated revenue for their hosts. No enlightened person is going to argue about the educational benefits to students and hosts alike of the internationalisation of Higher Education. Equally, no enlightened person is going to deny that, for any given Higher Education system or institution, the matter is complex. The full complexity rarely comes across in the media. For one thing, there are at least four crucial mobility variables involved: 1. inward vs outward; 2. undergrad vs postgrad; 3. intercalary – for a year or a semester only – vs mobility for an entire programme; 4. change of language for the student vs no change. In fairness, universities and colleges were made aware, well before the Covid Plague, of this complexity. After all, 2018 saw the publication of a formal report on the Internationalisation of Irish Higher Education. It was commissioned by the Higher Education Authority and funded by the Irish Research Council. Although all three authors of the report are associated with UCD, the report’s remit is nation-wide. Throughout the analysis, but particularly in two crucial paragraphs that feature almost verbatim in three separate sections of the relatively short publication, the report identifies two particular challenges for the internationalisation of Irish HE. First, it notes the suboptimal take-up of intercalary outward mobility by domestic students – mostly under the Erasmus Plus programme. Second, it notes the ‘language issues’ associated with these suboptimal figures. The report suggests that one of the main reasons, if not the major reason, why outgoing domestic students are reluctant to avail more widely of Erasmus Plus and other International Study opportunities is the worry about ‘foreign’ language or cultural competence. Nobody can complain, then, that the matters of outward mobility or language competence were swept under the table, even if the vast majority of the report’s references to mobility relate to inward student mobility and even if the vast majority of its references to ‘language issues’ concern the sometimes thorny matter of those students’ competence in English.

The Internationalisation report co-sponsored by the HEA and the IRC appeared at a time when the ethical and political quagmire surrounding the regulation of labour in the (largely private) English Language School industry was causing enormous concern. This led to the establishment in late 2019 of a ‘joint labour committee’ (an investigation and regulation mechanism) by the then Minister of State for Higher Education. It is all the more significant in this near-hysterical context that the Report does not lose sight completely of the ‘other’ Internationalisation question of outward mobility and of the link with the other language issue  (or ‘other languages’ issue). What is also remarkable, unfortunately, is that these two underlined points sit in complete contradiction with the policy vacuum on outward mobility and on ‘other language’ provision at the authors’ home university. UCD itself has concentrated its policy and operations almost exclusively on global inward mobility – particularly from Asia. The main attraction of inward student mobility to Ireland is the opportunity to study through English and thereby to become (more) fully functional in English. For our own outwardly mobile students, the only circumstances in which they will open themselves up to a comparable quantum-leap in educational benefit will be when their mobility allows them to learn through a different global language, a global language other than English. This is where Irish universities and colleges need to ensure that they are providing credible preparatory ‘Whole Institution Language Learning’ programmes. I don’t know if UCD is the only Irish HEI to have neglected or downgraded its ‘other global language’ non-specialist provision to the same point of virtual non-existence as UCD has. But I do know that in UCD this has happened as a consequence of the undue privileging of inward mobility. If I had a magic wand, I would set up a Rapid Intervention Taskforce for the multilingual preparation of all willing undergrads for multilingual outward mobility. I’d use the Covid-pause to to launch a major feasibility, planning and capacity-raising operation with a view to equipping our own students post-Covid for maximally life-changing, intercalary outward mobility. It’s now almost two years since the Internationalisation report was published. It’s also been almost two years since a number of us drafted on request a Languages Policy for the University. Almost two years since UCD held a spot-on conference on joining up university language learning. Almost five years since Ireland launched its Languages Connect Policy. And all of the above – which have remained dead letters – either explicitly or implicitly – made the case for Whole Institution Language Learning. Please, pretty please,  Minister Harris, can you ask for these insights to be resurrected and activated? Above all, can you encourage Ireland’s biggest university to do two things? First, to respect and enhance its specialist language capacity? This will mean bringing it back up to where it used to be when we had proper levels of expert staffing for all the European languages and when we could also award specialist degrees in other languages like Arabic (to which we now need to add Japanese, Russian, and Chinese). But above all, Minister, can you ask UCD to develop ‘Whole Institution Language Learning’ for non-specialist mobility?  Little or no money would be required for the planning. There are both local, Ireland-based experts and also European experts who would zoom up a plan pro bono in a heart-beat. It could be done and dusted and a start could be made on implementation, all during the Covid-pause. The fact is, Minister, that the Multilingual University is a reality all over the European continent: there are plenty of models. For sure there would be a need for a funding investment at the implementation stage. But think of the return! Two things are certain. One, if something major doesn’t happen now to plug more of our indigenous students back into Europe, the multilingual continent, it never will. Two, if the nettle isn’t grasped, then we can give up right now on ensuring that our indigenous students will ever be given the same level of opportunity as the one that Ireland is claiming for our incoming International students: the opportunity to spread their wings fully, to expand their own worlds maximally, and to push back their linguistic and cultural horizons exponentially.

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