"Building a More International University Community"

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May 2006


Presenters Panel

During the May 5, 2006 Quality Advocates session, administrators from several Canadian universities discussed how to build a more international university community. Dr. Fred Hall, Associate Vice President, Academic, McMaster University, Dr. Robert Major, Vice President, Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa, D. John Waterhouse, Vice President, Academic and Provost, Simon Fraser University, and Judith Gibson, Network Manager, The Conference Board of Canada, discussed how Canadian universities have strengthened international communities on their campuses. The panel was moderated by Michael Adewumi, Director, Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering, and Development in Africa (AESEDA), and Professor and Quentin E. and Louise L. Wood Faculty Fellow in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.  The panelists are members of Canada’s Quality Network for Universities who were visiting Penn State to learn more about Penn State’s quality initiatives and strategic planning.

Trends in International Education

Michael Adewumi pointed to the heightened interest international education has garnered as the world economy becomes more global and more competitive. He noted that the recent U.S. University Presidents Summit on International Education shows how important this topic is to higher education, even as several trends suggest international education needs more attention:

  • Enrollment in foreign language courses is decreasing overall, and students are concentrated in mainly three languages, Spanish, German, and French;
  • Relatively few students participate in study abroad programs;
  • Courses with international perspectives are mainly in general education, not in specific disciplines, such as engineering or science; and,
  • U.S. graduates are not prepared for a global workplace.

To illustrate how vital international issues were to higher education, Adewumi quoted Margaret Lee’s remarks at the University Presidents Summit: “You can’t live in the world today, and you can’t do business in the world today, unless you are a global citizen … we do live in a world that is so small now that the ‘community’ is the people on the planet.” (Lee is the president of Oakton Community College in Illinois.)

International Education Enriches Campus Community

One of the major themes in the conversation was that international education is a service to students and enriches the campus community. Although some universities (the panelists mentioned Australian colleges and universities as examples) see it as a solution to financial problems because of the higher tuitions charged to international students, it is more about bringing the international experience to campus through the presence of students from other countries.

At Simon Frazer University, Waterhouse portrayed international education as “the right thing to do” in terms of the overall student experience. Because the Canadian government provides no financial assistance to international students, international students pay significantly more for tuition than do domestic students. The University does not view this as a financial strategy to increase revenues, but rather assesses tuition for international students on a cost-recovery basis.

Major echoed this sentiment. He explained that the University of Ottawa doesn’t really need international student enrollment because domestic enrollments are sufficient due to the current demographics of their population and the relative diversity already present in their population. But, the University feels that international students add an extra dimension to student life. Major also added that the University loses revenue on study abroad programs, but they feel it is important enough to make it a priority for students.

International Education in Strategic Planning

A second major theme was that the decision to emphasize international education should be a strategic one.

In their strategic planning, Simon Frazer University (SFU) set a goal of 10 percent international students in undergraduate education and emphasized study abroad opportunities.  Waterhouse identified several factors which can affect this goal of increasing internationalization at his university and others. First is increased competition from: 1) countries such as China that traditionally had a high number of students studying abroad, which are now developing their own institutions of higher education; and, 2) countries such as Australia, which place great emphasis on attracting international students. The second factor at SFU is their high admissions standards (SAT requirements are similar to Ivy League schools), coupled with low name recognition, which makes it tough to attract international students. Third, SFU had invested little in actually recruiting international students but had depended on the diverse international nature of its hometown population (Vancouver) to attract students. Fourth, international students who do enroll at SFU have high attrition rates; only 60 percent return for a second year.

To address these factors, Simon Frazer University has entered into a partnership with a private company which will recruit international students, bring them to SFU, teach these students for the first year, provide English, study, and life skills courses, and mentor the students. Once the international students complete the first year, Simon Fraser University will accept the credits completed and the international students transition into SFU. The University plans to recruit up to one-third of its international students and increase the total number of countries of origin by using this private company.

At McMaster University, the decision to increase internationalization was also a strategic one. About six or seven years ago, McMaster University had enrollment of 12,000 students. It was mainly drawing students from the nearby region, with only about 5 percent being international. In its strategic planning at that time, McMaster set a goal to increase both domestic and international enrollment.  The University offered incentives to deans and colleges to recruit students from countries such as China and Korea and it appeared to meet the goal since it grew from 12,000 to 19,000 with a corresponding increase in international students. But, further analysis showed that the change occurred mainly as a result of changes in the region. Toronto, a city of great diversity near where McMaster University is located, had sprawled out to become the “Greater Toronto Area”. According to Hall, the University “had internationalized” itself, because even though it was still drawing mainly regional students, the composition of these students had changed as a result of the increasing diversity associated with Toronto.

International Education Must Be Student Centered

McMaster University has acknowledged its increased diversity by celebrating, accommodating, and encouraging it. The University conducted a student needs assessment and addressed issues related to international students. For instance, the University established a prayer space for Muslims and developed student clubs with diverse missions to address the needs and interests of both domestic and international students. These clubs increase contact between students from both groups because they have both domestic and international student members. One of the goals of the University is to provide a safe, welcoming campus, in both the physical and social aspects.

Another strategy McMaster University takes to make study abroad less costly for students is to ensure that agreements are in place with the receiving institution so that all credits students complete at the receiving institution are transferable to McMaster. This eliminates duplication of courses and decreases cost to students. The establishment of the agreements is the responsibility of the departments within each college at the University.

Because of its location in the capital of Canada, the University of Ottawa has great access to international students. Currently, the emphasis is on educating global citizens, so more attention is now being placed into infusing international relations into educational curricula and getting more students to study abroad. The Provost of the University of Ottawa recently moved the international office from economic development to an academic unit and hired an academic director for the office. In addition, the University has eliminated ineffective signed agreements they had with other institutions and is working on developing key curriculum agreements between departments and institutions abroad.

The University of Ottawa also holds mentoring sessions for students who are going abroad to study, and welcoming weeks for international students. In addition, students have developed a virtual “International House” to welcome new foreign students.  

Another member of the Quality Network for Universities, H. Art Quinney, Deputy Provost and Professor, Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, University of Alberta, offered that his campus has created a student residence hall for international and domestic students. Sixty-five percent of the residents of the International House are international students and 35 percent are domestic students. There is great demand for this by students each year.

One member of the audience suggested that internationalization of higher education curricula extends to and benefits the corporate world because graduates are exposed to international perspectives and prepared for an international economy. For this reason, corporate sponsorship of internationalization strategies may make sense.

Adewumi summarized the session by suggesting:

  • that international education is everybody’s concern, especially at the faculty level;
  • universities need to provide a welcoming environment;
  • a diverse community is important to student growth and development;
  • higher education should not view recruitment of international students as a financial strategy; and,
  • increasing internationalization in higher education will also benefit the global marketplace.


The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.