When I, in the late 1970s, carried out research about foreign students at the University of Oslo, Norway, there were only a few hundred students from the developing countries among the 1,100 foreign students in a total student population of close to 20,000 at Norway’s largest university. In all, there were less than 2,000 foreign students among the 70,000 students in the country, and about 6,000 Norwegians studied abroad.
Although that would be good, it wouldn’t replace overseas training. And it should also be noted that foreign students would in general be an asset to a university community, but they would also need special assistance while studying in Norway, such as language courses, introduction to the land’s culture and society, and counselling and guidance related to their studies.
My research a generation ago focused on all these issues because it had become a worry at the university that many foreign students, and especially students from developing countries, did not complete their studies successfully on time or at all. It was a larger problem in the social and philosophical subjects where students need to have a certain degree of understanding of the country where they study. That time, literally all lecture series and seminars were conducted in Norwegian, and only some guest lectures in English; for most students, it would take more than the compulsory year-long language and culture courses to master the language at a good enough level to read scientific books.
The largest sending countries of foreign students were Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, who have the advantage of not needing any language courses to follow ordinary studies in Norwegian. Many students came from USA, UK, Germany, France and other European countries, but they needed language courses in Norwegian, or today, attend courses offered in English. There were also large numbers of students from the subcontinent and today also from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other refugee sending countries.
I had the pleasure of knowing several foreign students at Oslo because I was an instructor at orientation courses for a few semesters. Those students who could afford it and had the self-confidence to take longer than the stipulated study time would eventually receive solid academic and professional degrees. Among those was Professor M. Daud Awan from Mansehra. We studied education at the same time at the University of Oslo. Farooq Khan from Faisalabad did his advanced degree in sociology, with academic and professional components. Daud and Farooq came back to Pakistan and have held top posts in the society.
Interestingly, they both speak highly of their studies in Norway. Because they also worked in Norway upon completion of their studies, one spent 12 and the other 15 years there. Still, they talk about the simplicity in research methods and teacher-student relations that were so common in Norway, and the way students became committed to their studies and the paradigms that existed. It was expected that students and teachers took a stand and could be advocates for their opinions and work. In fields like development studies, gender studies and environmental studies, we were supposed to take political and moral stands and justify our opinions in academic papers.
Today, 35 years on, Norway has about 20,000 foreign students in a total student population of about 220,000, three times as many as when I carried out my research. The University of Oslo has about 35,000 students, up from 20,000. Today, all Norwegian universities (eight full-fledged and nine specialised institutions) have large groups of foreign students, and some of the 24 regional university colleges for applied sciences and some private universities have sizeable numbers too. Whereas Norway a generation ago had about 6,000 students abroad that figure is now 21,000, about three times as many as when I did my research.
Exchange of students is, perhaps, the most important component of internationalisation of universities. Staff exchange is also important with collaborative research between local and foreign staff members. The importance of foreign and international content in curricula cannot be overemphasised. That also includes simple examples and comparative data from other countries, where students have to relate and understand issues in a local context. After all, we should not just be impressed by all that is foreign; we have to relate it to our local conditions and sometimes we will realise that we do well locally too.
In Europe, the internationalisation efforts in higher education in the last generation has been “steered efforts”, i.e. the national politicians and the university leaders have agreed to set goals, develop plans and been serious in their implementation. If it had been left to individual institutions and departments, it is likely that achievements would not have been as impressive as they are and we would also have seen great differences between institutions and subject areas.
When I carried out my research and published my book “Studenter fra U-land” about the students from developing countries in 1981, I recall that the Vice Chancellor and the University Director were very keen on the internationalisation issues, but staff members were generally quite lukewarm, and at best, arguing for more resources to help foreign students in their studies in order to welcome them. And there was not much interest for including global and comparative materials in reading lists, and very little from the developing countries.
When we began establishing formal linkages with more foreign universities, in addition to with the existing ones with large countries (USA, UK, Germany and France), interest grew. But many were sceptical about Norway’s benefit of having such linkages with less developed countries. This has changed today! But still there is hesitance among students in choosing to spend time in a developing country, unless they study development issues in the country in question and must carry out fieldwork there. As a general goal, Norwegian university students are advised to spend one of the six undergraduate semesters at a foreign university, usually at a university with which the home university has a cooperation linkage.
The reason for the success of European universities having managed to become more international over the last generation, to a major extent, goes to the “steered efforts” I referred to above. The European Union (EU) has played a key role and those handful of countries that are not its members (like Norway) have special agreements and are included in the main programme called “Erasmus”, named after a 16th century Dutch scholar. Erasmus celebrates its 25 years this year. It has been hailed by educationists, noting that about 10 percent of the European students now take some of their university studies abroad as compared to American students, for example, where only one percent of the students get this experience.
Internationalisation of higher education is not just important from an educational and research point of view, although we would also emphasise those aspects. But it is important in creating further cooperation and lifelong friendship across national borders within Europe and beyond. Put simply, people learn to live together by living together. The importance of this aspect cannot be overemphasised. Exchange of students is, therefore, an important contribution towards peaceful cooperation, reducing the risks of wars and other conflicts.
When I carried out my research and taught foreign students at Oslo, I was lucky to receive funding for my work because the head of research at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) was Ingrid Eide, who had herself carried out research in the field, with her then husband, Johan Galtung, the renowned Norwegian peace researcher. She had carried out a study for Unesco entitled “Students as links between cultures”. That title depicts the essence of the importance of international student exchange and other internationalisation efforts.
Through the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Pakistan for the last decade had major programmes in this field, sending university staff members overseas for advanced degrees. A number of universities have linkages with overseas institutions, and I hope that they don’t forget neighbouring universities either.
The University of Gujrat - one of the ambitious universities in social sciences - has recently established links with two Norwegian universities, one American and one British, adding to the more than half a dozen existing linkages. I only hope that funding will come forth and that procedures will be simple because the product of cooperation is important. If the process takes too much time, then it may not always be worth the while.
We must realise that most activities related to internationalisation cost money, especially since travels are often included. Yet, it is an investment that will prove fruitful in the near future. If developing countries don’t invest in it, they will be lagging further behind in future - not only in education and research, but also in trade and other fields.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.