Higher Education in an Age of Disruption: A comparative analysis of internationalization policies in England, France, and Germany
The internationalization of higher education (HE) has been one of the most notable developments in the HE sector in the last decades, characterized, most prominently, by a steady rise of internationally mobile students until 2019 (OECD, 2021). The European Union (EU) has promoted HE internationalization through policies such as the Erasmus Scheme or the Bologna Process (Dadowska, 2019). The proliferation of internationalization strategies on national and organizational levels of HE governance further underlines the extent to which the international dimension has become institutionalized across European HE systems (Crăciun, 2018). Recent years, however, brought about two major disruptions to longstanding HE policies and decades of European HE integration: the United Kingdom’s 2016 decision to leave the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic, which began affecting European HE in early 2020. Both Brexit and the Corona crisis have been widely discussed as potential critical junctures that may or may not lead HE internationalization onto a new developmental path (e.g. Altbach & de Wit, 2020). But how have the two disruptions actually affected HE systems and to what extent do policy responses vary across countries? Can Brexit and the pandemic be characterized as potential critical junctures?
The paper presents findings from a comparative study on HE internationalization policies in England, France, and Germany, the three most internationalized countries in terms of student mobility flows, with a focus on Brexit and Covid-19 responses between 2016 and 2021. Drawing on historical and sociological institutionalism (Capoccia, 2015; Hall, 1993; Hogan et al., 2022; Mahoney & Thelen, 2010; Scott, 2008), and a qualitative content analysis of 44 expert interviews and policy documents, the study’s findings indicate that rather than triggering sudden path departure and sweeping ideational change, both disruptions intensified existing institutional tensions and accelerated ongoing policy developments. From an English perspective, Brexit induced regulative and normative changes, which reflected perennial competing cultural-cognitive logics with regards to the overall rationales of HE internationalization. In France and Germany, Brexit strengthened the normative and cultural-cognitive commitment to the European project.
Covid-19 responses highly depended on the respective national contexts, especially existing digital infrastructures. The pandemic was less of a disruption for the already more digitalized internationalization of English HE, whereas in France and Germany, Covid-19 served as a regulative and normative path clearer, accelerating previously languishing policy initiatives surrounding the digitalization of HE internationalization, however with different policy foci.
The paper contributes empirically to the literature on HE internationalization by analyzing recent policy developments in a comparative perspective. Theoretically, the paper adds to the critical appraisal of institutional change concepts at the example of the highly institutionalized policy domain of HE.