Internationalisation of higher education from a student’s perspective – it’s all about encounters on

By Milla Ovaska, Specialist in International Affairs at Aalto University Student Union, Finland.

Originally posted 12 August 2017.

How do your students see the internationalisation of their university? What if you would involve students as partners in your internationalisation efforts? What is important for students at an international university? Let me introduce students’ ideas for internationalisation from Aalto University Student Union in Finland.

The role of students defined in the law of universities

In Finland, university decision-making is based on the idea of co-decision and taking into account the different groups of the university community: the students, the staff and the professors. This tripartite decision-making model is in place across all levels of the university from the administrative department level committees and working groups all the way to academic bodies at the management level. Students have an active voice in decision-making and policy formulation at all of these levels. The Universities’ Act defines student unions as self-governing bodies participating “in the implementation of the educational mission of the university” and nominates student representatives to the various administrative bodies of the university[1]. Student unions work as a bridge between students and the university, providing research and ideas for development and maintaining close connections to the student body.

Aalto University Student Union (AYY) cooperates with the university on various aspects of internationalisation. And of course, the student union also has to practice what it preaches – our own policies have to be inclusive[2], our activities and communications accessible[3] and we also promote the internationalisation of the student associations[4].

Different viewpoints on internationalisation – from external networks to internal internationalisation

For a university the main questions related to internationalisation typically include this kind of pondering: Will we meet the mobility targets? Who is the right strategic partner for us? What are the most beneficial international networks for our organisation? Where and how will we recruit international students? These questions, important to management, are pretty distant from the every-day life of students on campus. The questions most topical for a student might go along these lines: Why should I go to an exchange? Am I able to study in a foreign language? What is expected from me as a foreign student in Finland? Will I fit in, will my background be accepted and ideas valued in the university? Why do I have to do projects in multicultural groups?

While the university, staff and students may all have the same aim – to create an international university – the perspectives of all parties will be different. The quality of teaching and students’ learning outcomes are central to internationalisation from the student perspective. Internationalisation of the curriculum and pedagogy does not mean translating degrees into English, nor does it happen automatically by diversifying the student body and faculty. From a student’s perspective good teaching is inclusive, inspiring and enables encounters between cultures. A good teacher knows how to take different learners on board and is able to communicate her pedagogical goals across cultural boundaries. In AYY’s project, ‘Aalto is Multicultural’[5] 11 degree students from around the world share their hopes and frustrations with starting their studies in Finland. ”Finnish students are not that communicative at first, but when you are put into a same group it helps and might grow to friendships, too”, says an Ukrainian student on the video. Integration and a multicultural community do not just occur. The university needs to purposefully create an atmosphere and structures that support integration, and this is best done in classrooms.

Ability to understand different perspectives and to effectively communicate in a multicultural setting are definitely skills today’s graduates will need in their work and personal life. An international university is an excellent place to practice these skills, but it does not mean these skills emerge without reflection and careful integration into learning outcomes. Most importantly, students need to understand what they are learning and why these skills are important for them. Otherwise they may reject the opportunity to develop intercultural communication skills, as the following comment from a Finnish student in our small-scale survey about global competences in studies illustrates. “As a physics student, dividing problems/assignments/cases to multi- or uni-cultural ones seems rather artificial. Physics is the same everywhere.” According to the survey, teachers do use multicultural teamwork as the main method to support the development of the students’ global competences. However, only 13% of the responding students were asked to reflect the development of these skills in the course assignment or student feedback.[6] Encouraging multicultural teamwork in classroom is a welcome start, but if not facilitated well and reflected in the course assessment it might even foster negative stereotyping.

It all comes down to ensuring international aspects and intercultural competences are systematically and purposefully integrated into every degree. The Finnish Ministry of Education insists in the recent International Policy for Finnish Higher Education that all higher education graduates learn to work in a multicultural setting and understand cultural difference and global challenges[7]. However, graduate surveys show a considerable gap between the perceived high importance of intercultural skills in working life with the low level of confidence graduates have developed in these skills during studies[8]. Exchange, or studying abroad can help, but it is only one option and not possible for all students. International mindsets and intercultural skills can and should be developed at students’ home campus by offering inspiration and skills with multicultural project work, foreign case studies, online projects with partner universities, guest lecturers and extracurricular activities. An international university is not a campus or classroom made up of different cultures, it’s essentially a community, where everyone is able to participate and where understanding different perspectives, contexts and ways of working are learned. An international university does not just happen; it requires systematic attention to cultural inclusion at every level. That’s why it’s important to listen to students, who have the first-hand experience of internationalisation in the university.

[1] Universities Act § 46, 558/2009

[2] AYY Policy Paper on Internationalisation

[3] AYY Language Strategy

[4] AYY Internationalisation Guide for Associations

[5] Ovaska, Milla; Asikainen, Milja; Mendoza, Carlos (2015): Aalto is Multicultural.

[6] Results from AYY Workshop Global Competences for All Aalto Students, 3/2017.

[7] Ministry of Education (2017): Yhteistyössä maailman parasta. Korkeakoulutuksen ja tutkimuksen kansainvälisyyden edistämisen linjaukset 2017–2025.

[8] TEK Graduate Survey 2016