Over the past 25 years the international dimension of higher education in Europe has become more important for governments, higher education institutions and accreditation bodies (Hans de Wit, Measuring success in the internationalisation of higher education, 2009).
European programmes stimulated cooperation and exchange in education and research, the Lisbon agenda called for increased competitiveness and globalisation. Internationalisation is perceived to be a key factor for modern knowledge based societies; it has been steadily increasing in importance and scope.
Higher education institutions started to pursue internationalisation as a pro-active strategic issue. Internationalisation of the curriculum and of the teaching and learning process has become relevant for HE institutions and various forms of cross-border education have become widespread in Europe (e.g. joint programmes). Today internationalisation itself is perceived as an indicator for the quality of higher education, but so far only few European-wide approaches have assessed the quality of internationalisation (Hans de Wit, 2009). Most of these attempts focused on the institutional dimensions of internationalisation, such as the initiatives of the Institute for International Education (www.iienetwork.org) or the initiative of a large European consortium with the IMPI project (http://www.impi-project.eu/). There is a shortcoming in the definition and assessment of the quality of internationalisation at programme level. The current national accreditation systems in Europe do not assess international and intercultural learning outcomes of study programmes and a commonly agreed assessment framework on the European level is lacking.
Based on these observations and on the pre-existing knowledge in this area NVAO, representing two member countries (Netherlands/Flanders) of the European Consortium for Accreditation in higher Education (ECA), developed and tested a system of assessment of internationalisation on the programme level. The evaluation of these pilots resulted in a framework for the assessment of internationalisation at both the programme and institutional level. In the Netherlands and Flanders it is now possible for programmes and institutions to request, on a voluntary basis, to assess the quality of internationalisation at the programme or institutional level. The assessment can be carried out in conjunction with the regular programme accreditation or institutional audit. When assessed positively a so called distinctive quality feature on internationalisation is awarded and this achievement is included in the accreditation or audit decision which is published together with the assessment report. To this date 18 Dutch and Flemish programmes have been assessed positively and therefore received the distinctive quality feature on internationalisation. Based on these successful initiatives in two countries and the demand of HE institutions from different countries who participated or attended meetings where these pilots were presented, ECA declared an interest to develop a commonly agreed European framework for assessing internationalisation at the programme and institutional level. Those institutions or programmes that have successfully incorporated an international and intercultural dimension into the function, purpose and delivery of education should receive a European certificate as a testimony to their achievements.
The project provides HEIs in Europe with the opportunity to benchmark against good practices in internationalisation. This will bring internationalisation of the education to new quality levels and will have a positive impact on the international activities (cooperation and competitiveness) of the involved institutions and study programmes. The planned European certificate expresses that students achieve high international and intercultural competencies in the certified study programmes or institutions. This is a valuable orientation point for the labour market and has also the potential to facilitate cross-border recognition of the corresponding qualifications in Europe.
The project will be based on a commonly agreed European framework for the assessment of internationalisation, established in a close dialogue with HEIs and its stakeholder groups. The project capitalises on the already existing cross-border cooperation of
ECA members; it introduces a strong European dimension into the European Higher Education Area and thereby fills in a perceived shortcoming in European quality assurance (European Commission progress report on QA, 2009). As enhanced internationalisation and the evidence of a certificate is a driver for goals of the Bologna process, such as mobility and transparency, this project contributes to the further development of a coherent European Higher Education Area.
In this project it will be one of the first times that national accreditation agencies in Europe will focus rather on excellence than on minimal standards of quality in their procedures. In this perspective the project is innovative and new as it explores new ways in external quality assurance on a European level.
The challenge of this EU-project is to develop an assessment framework for internationalisation (criteria and standards) that can be used in the various European countries. Similarities in the already existing assessment instruments and the positive reactions of HEIs involved in the pilot-studies in the Netherlands and Flanders and HEIs from other countries at European meetings give us confidence that this goal is achievable.