"International" (or not)

Today I would like to revisit the theme of an earlier blog entry on the names universities give to their academic programs.


As everyone knows, more and more Japanese universities are moving to establish degree programs in English designed to attract international students and globally-minded domestic students. What interests me is that the vast majority of these programs seem to be have titles (either official or tentative) which include the word “kokusai” (国際). I am a little concerned by the tendency to use the word “international” in the English title of these programs.


The first question that needs to be asked is: What makes the program “international” (or "kokusai-teki")? The answer is usually reasonably clear from a Japanese perspective: The program is part of the university’s internationalization strategy. It is usually designed to be accessible to international students; it is taught in an English medium and (at least partly) by non-Japanese faculty. What could be more "kokusai-teki" than that? While I understand that rationale, it also invites a further question: Do those features necessarily make the program “international” from a non-Japanese perspective?


In the country where I work as a university faculty member, it is almost impossible to find a program that isn't open to international students. Similarly, faculty are from many different national and cultural backgrounds, and it is taken for granted that all programs are in English. These attributes do not in themselves make a program “international”. I think the same is the case in many other countries. Programs that attract the label “international” are those in a discipline that is inherently international, such as “international relations”, or with a notable emphasis on international and/or intercultural perspectives, such as “international human resource management” or “international studies”. The mere fact that a program is established as part of a university’s internationalization strategy, or that it has received funding under a government program to support internationalization, does not automatically make it “international”, let alone “global” (I shall talk about "global" in another post). It is misleading to call programs "international" if their academic content does not live up to that description. 


Furthermore, by calling certain programs "international", universities may actually be defeating the original purpose of their internationalization strategy. The "international" label marks the programs as somehow distinct from the university's other academic offerings, which are therefore assumed to remain "domestic" and beyond the scope of internationalization. If the ultimate aim is to establish internationalization as a routine, mainstream element of university activity, this approach is counter-productive.


What, then, is the alternative to calling a program "international"? I don’t know. I think the answer will vary from case to case. The important thing is to have a proper discussion and name the program based on its actual academic features, not based on the university's (or government's) intention in establishing it. 

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