Dearth of evidence of value of international cooperation

Transnational cooperation in teaching and research has historically been at the core of internationalisation activities in higher education institutions. National governments in every geopolitical region of the world have embraced cooperation as a way to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of higher education systems.

But what do we know about the actual costs and benefits of international cooperation? According to a systematic review of the last 25 years of research, not much.

The assumed benefits of international cooperation in higher education spread far and wide:

  • Strengthened institutional academic and administrative capacity;
  • Improved quality of educational provision;
  • Increased diversity of educational programmes;
  • Increased efficiency of higher education systems achieved through economies of scale and scope resulting from transnational cooperation;
  • Increased quantity and quality of human capital and subsequent economic growth;
  • Increasing prestige of higher education institutions abroad;
  • Improved diplomatic relations between participating institutions and countries;
  • Increased institutional revenue;
  • Increased opportunities for students and faculty to participate in international exchanges and collaborative teaching and research projects;
  • Better learning outcomes;
  • Better labour market outcomes; and
  • A higher degree of intercultural awareness.

There is less discussion of the individual, institutional and macro-level costs associated with international cooperation in higher education.

Such assumed costs include:

  • The operational and administrative costs of launching and sustaining international partnerships;
  • Subsidies and other financial incentives offered to institutions and individuals who participate in international exchange programmes and in international collaborative teaching and research projects;
  • Brain drain; 
  • Loss of autonomy due to a partnership imbalance;
  • Loss of linguistic or cultural diversity; and 
  • The emotional costs of studying, teaching or conducting research abroad.

The benefits of international cooperation in higher education are widely assumed and the costs of such cooperative activities are occasionally acknowledged in the professional and academic discourses on higher education internationalisation.

But until recently, the dearth of empirical evidence on the outcomes and impact of international cooperation in higher education has remained largely unchallenged.

In a report, titled Benefits and Costs of Transnational Collaborative Partnerships in Higher Education, prepared for the European Commission, we undertook the task of systematically reviewing and assessing English-language publications since 1990 that pertain specifically to the benefits and costs of transnational collaborative partnerships between higher education institutions.

With the help of academic database searches, authors identified close to 4,000 individual references on the topic.

There is evidence – both anecdotal and research-based – of a substantial failure of many instances of international higher education cooperation: namely, the failure to achieve benefits for all participants in equal measure. Studies and personal reflections abound that document one-sided, unbalanced or even exploitative international relationships in higher education

Unfortunately, authors found little indication in published studies that student exchange programmes and instructional programmes carried out collaboratively by universities in multiple countries have led to the acquisition of intercultural competencies, increased intercultural awareness, reduced ethnocentrism or the emergence of some form of a transnational identity.

 Considering the astronomical number of international collaborative educational programmes worldwide, the dearth of rigorous evidence pertaining to the learning outcomes associated with participation in them in higher education is surprising

Equally surprising is the fact that there is no research-based evidence pertaining to the assumed political benefits of international cooperation in higher education.

International cooperation in higher education has gained increasing prominence over the course of the past 25 years and empirical evidence is slowly emerging about its benefits – or at least about some of its assumed benefits. The existing body of research tells us very little about the costs of international student and staff exchanges, international research collaborations and the joint provision of international education programmes.

But even while recognising the difficulties in empirically testing the claims about the assumed economic and non-economic benefits and costs of international cooperation in higher education, it is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to say that one of the biggest failures of international higher education cooperation over the past 25 years has been the inability to thoroughly demonstrate its added value by means of rigorous empirical research.