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Joint Modules and Internationalisation in Higher Education

Reflections on the Joint Module «Comparative Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning»


Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer, Paula Guimaraes and Balázs Németh

This volume places the development of the Joint Module «Comparative Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning» (COMPALL) in the context of international development in higher education and adult education. Based on this framework, the authors discuss the development of the joint module in terms of its institutional and didactical structure as well as participants’ motivation and diversity. The book is divided into three parts: (1) Internationalisation in Higher Education, (2) Internationalisation of Higher Education: The Case of Adult Education, and (3) Internationalisation of Higher Education: The Example of COMPALL.

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Internationalisation and higher education: The case study of a master’s degree course in adult education (Vanna Boffo / Gaia Gioli)

Vanna Boffo & Gaia Gioli

Internationalisation and Higher Education: The Case Study of a Masters Degree Course in Adult Education

Abstract: The paper provides an overview of the concept of internationalisation and of how it is challenging higher education policies. Through the case study developed by the Universities of Florence and Würzburg, the authors reflect on internationalisation as a central strategy for the construction of a global scientific community and labour market.


Why internationalisation? This could be considered the research question that guides the work on which the following short contribution is based. It is not a research question that involves only one specific sector of studies in the field of adult and continuing education, but it is the theme of the great space of European Higher Education. We might deal with the discourse from multiple points of observation: at the macro, meso, and micro levels. Each of these perspectives address different aspects. The macro level concerns university policies and the ability to create a supranational space involving research, teaching, and the third mission; the meso level affects the actual programs that the universities build to develop the transnational level in concrete terms, such as Erasmus; the micro level relates to specific study courses and hence people, students, professors, and administrative staff to create personal but also local, regional, and national knowledge.

However, at the heart of national and local university policies that affect, through good practices, the virtuous behaviour of students and professors, there has been a radical economic change that has accelerated and modified study paths and the way people follow them. In the beginning, the university as an institution was born as a universal institution, as a global place of research and of the highest knowledge, as will be discussed later. The Italian Universities of the High Middle Ages were born open to the world, to a borderless territory. The research itself had no affiliation, and the top scholars passed from one court to the other, crossing borders before nation states were even born. Today, the international dimension has become a necessary imperative if we want to support the future, develop new professions, expand the sense of democracy, and guide human well-­being. If we really want to work for the growth of countries, if we want to cut down on cultural←79 | 80→ and linguistic barriers, if we want peace to be an achievable goal, then internationalisation will be accessible to the highest number of citizens in the world and synonymous with a better life for all. In a recent paper, Paolo Federighi (2014), with extreme clarity, emphasised how the relationship between material goods production, the global value chain, knowledge innovation, process and product transfer, and the improvement of human well-­being conditions is related to the global context in which the whole world has found itself at least since the end of the twentieth century. It seems very important to stress the link between production and internationalisation and between internationalisation and globalisation, because without this connection, we will not understand the fundamental reasons for the strategic importance of internationalising higher education.

Concerning educational research, Federighi writes:

Globalisation processes take on a more pervasive dimension when, at the end of the last century, the strong decline in commodity costs and freight transport allows a different and more integrated organisation of production activities on global scale and, then, the globalisation of the value chain […]. Production of the same product is subdivided according to the phases and the components between many countries and companies.

Consequently, they do not trade the products only, but the tasks, the functions that lead to their realisation. Organisations and people play a role in the Global Value Chain in reason of the tasks which they have acquired in the global comparison and know how to play better than others. It does not matter what a country exports, the production of that good is the result of the competition of various companies of different nationalities. Almost everything is “Made in the World” and little “Made in Italy”. What matters is the added value that every single enterprise (and hence each country) brings to the Global Value Chain and how it can work with other partners. The interdependence of national economies is increased and the competition is played on the ground of the competence of persons and organisations, on their ability to attract those that ensure the best performance. If a country or an undertaking are not capable of enhancing a persons skills, it is the worker who must engage himself in growth and mobility paths. The activities which lead to the production of a product are dispersed in the world and create a global labour market in which circulate both immigrants and expatriates brought by their skills (the more efficient Italian companies of local transport have the management of the RATP, French). (Federighi, 2014, p. 31).

In fact, what applies to markets, products, and companies also applies to the educational and training processes that underlie the internationalisation policies which the worlds universities have looked at and which European universities in particular are looking at.

From the meso to the micro level is a short step. With this in mind, we want to propose a case study of a transnational character that has both micro and meso effects, and therefore we think is suitable for some reflections on educational research.←80 | 81→

Overview of the internationalisation process at the European level

As many authors point out, the impulse to internationalise higher education has its roots in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, when professors and students were ‘pilgrims or travellers (peregrini) of another kind also a familiar sight of the roads of Europe. […] Their pilgrimage (peregrination) was not to Christs or a saints tomb, but to a university city where they hoped to find learning, friends, and leisure. (de Ridder-­Symoens, 1992, p. 280)

This description emphasises many of the points that are still brought forth today to promote mobility: the broadening of experience and research, new ideas, the search of a common language, new networks, and collaborations. Because nations did not exist at the time as we now consider them, we can talk about a ‘medieval European space (Neave, 1997, p. 6) characterised by some basic and common principles.

The use of Latin as a common language, and of a uniform program of study and system of examinations, enabled itinerant students to continue their studies in one ‘stadium after another, and ensured recognition of their degrees throughout Christendom. Besides their academic knowledge they took home with them a host of new experiences, opinions, and political principles and views. (de Ridder-­Symoens, 1992, pp. 302–303)

It is not by chance that the European Commission named its most famous mobility program after the philosopher Erasmus, who was a medieval pilgrim.

Indeed, the process of the internationalisation of higher education is not new in the global scenario. After its initial phase, it emerged as a process and strategy in the 1950s when ‘the international dimension of higher education began to move from the incidental and individual into organised activities, projects and programs, based on political reasons and driven more by national governments than by higher education itself (de Wit & Merkx, 2012, pp. 52–53). Later, it dramatically expanded in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the educational policies and initiatives that pushed in this direction, especially the Erasmus and Research Framework programmes funded by the European Commission, which aimed to develop a common and diffused European identity.

The process of the internationalisation of higher education can be interpreted in many ways (Yang, 2002; Deardorff, De Wit, Heyl, & Adams, 2012; De Haan, 2014), as experts in the field of internationalisation have identified numerous different definitions and nuances. For example, it can overlap with the process of globalisation because the difference between the two concepts ‘cannot be regarded as categorical. They overlap and are intertwined in all kinds of ways (Scott, 2005, p. 14). The definitions proposed in this work are in line with De Wit and←81 | 82→ Hunter (p. 343) and Knight (2008), who see globalisation as ‘a social, economic and political process to which higher education responds and in which it is also an actor. Internationalisation is the way in which higher education responds and acts. (De Wit & Hunter, p. 343)

According to Jane Knights definition, globalisation is

the process that increases the flow of people, culture, ideas, values, knowledge, technology, and economy across borders, resulting in a more interconnected and interdependent world […] Education is one of the sectors impacted by globalisation. (Knight, 2008, pp. x–­xi)

Internationalisation, by contrast, is

the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-­secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society. (Knight, 2008, p. 21)

This latter definition can be called a working definition, since it gives the higher education system some input intentionally on how to properly implement internationalisation.

Knights definition is based on four main concepts and terms carefully chosen:

1) ‘Process: Internationalisation is seen as a continuous effort. The concept of ‘process refers to a tri-­partite model of education made up of input, process, and output – terms that are intentionally not used in the definition to maintain a flexible and general approach that can be adapted to any country, institution, or stakeholders, without reflecting any particular priority or viewpoint.

2) ‘International, intercultural, and global dimension: These terms are intentionally used as a triad, where ‘international refers to the relationship between and among nations, cultures, or countries; ‘intercultural refers to the diversity of cultures that exists within countries, communities, and institutions (i.e. at home); ‘global refers to a worldwide scope.

3) ‘Integrating: The term refers to the will of embedding the international and intercultural dimension into policies and programmes.

4) ‘Purpose, function, and delivery: These terms are intentionally used as a triad, where ‘purpose refers to the mission or mandate of a single institution; ‘function refers to the tasks of a national postsecondary education system; ‘delivery refers to education courses and programmes offered domestically or in other countries by higher education institutions or by companies. (Knight, 2004, pp. 11–12)←82 | 83→

Indeed, the definition focuses not only on mobility but on the integration of education and research at a global level. The ideal tools can be seen in curricula, mobility, and learning outcomes that, intertwined, can help to link the concept of formation to the development of the human being and society. Internationalisation is not a goal in itself but a means to the development of the human being.

The internationalisation of higher education is a central strategy for the formation and the construction of a global scientific community. The steps that can lead to that goal can be identified as (1) construction of international links for cooperation among European institutions; (2) modification of higher education curricula in order to reach a common educational path for the formation of future professionals; (3) activation of common study paths.

Internationalisation processes are based on two main pillars: internationalisation at home and abroad.

The term ‘Internationalisation at Home (IaH) was published for the first time by Bengt Nilsson (1999), who tried to find an answer to the fact that even though ten years had passed since the introduction of the ERASMUS programme, only 10 per cent of students went to study abroad. He did not identify Internationalisation at Home as a didactical concept but rather as an instrument, created on didactical concepts and comparative methodology,

to give greater prominence to campus-­based elements such as the intercultural and international dimension in the teaching learning process, research, extra-­curricular activities, relationships with local cultural and ethnic community groups, as well as the integration of foreign students and scholars into campus life and activities (Knight, 2008a, p. 19).

In other words, in his vision, Internationalisation at Home could guarantee staff and professors an ad-­hoc training, and the mobile minority an education that could embrace an international dimension, a better understanding of people from different countries and cultures, and respect for society-­at-­large as a multicultural context in order to introduce to the curriculum an embedded intercultural education that could increase students interest for experiences abroad.

Internationalisation at Home could guarantee the mobile minority an education that could embrace international curricula and programmes/activities, teaching and learning processes based on international elements or persons, ad-­hoc faculty education, internationally related extracurricular activities, and a connection with the various aspects of society.

Internationalisation at Home was later defined as ‘any internationally related activity with the exception of outbound student and staff mobility (Wächter, 2000, p. 5) and as←83 | 84→

a system of international education [that] offers the possibility of finding a new way in which higher education mainstreams the international dimension in all segments of the universities, reforms the curriculum, mobilises community resources, institutionalises international education and focuses on relevance to the global job market (Mestenhauser, 2006, p. 70).

Both definitions identify Internationalisation at Home as a matter for the individual higher education institution that, while preparing students to study abroad, can enhance the quality of students learning experience in a very flexible way.

‘Internationalisation abroad, by contrast, refers to exchange mobility programmes that may involve students, staff, and professors in the medium and long term at a partner university linked via scientific and/or cultural agreements to the home university.

The strategies for internationalisation

The strategies for the internationalisation of European universities have developed in recent decades as a result of the need to integrate the international dimension into the policies and strategies that lie behind curriculum development. Knight (2004, pp. 14–15) summarised them in four programme strategies (categories defined in the table below).

Table 1: Programme strategies for internationalisation (based on Knight, 2004, pp. 14–15)

Programme strategies/categories


1) Academic programmes

student exchange programmes

foreign language study

internationalised curricula

work/study abroad (e.g. internships)

international students (e.g. presence on campus)

joint/double degree programmes

study programmes in languages of international circulation

cross-­cultural/intercultural training programmes (e.g. orientation for foreign students, etc.)

faculty/staff mobility programmes

guest lectures and visiting scholars (fellowships)

link between academic programmes and other strategies←84 | 85→

2) Research and scholarly collaboration (e.g. activities and common research projects)

Area and theme centres

Joint research projects

International conferences and seminars

Published articles and papers

International research agreements (e.g. PhD in cotutelle)

Research exchange programmes (e.g. with universities and companies)

3) External collaboration: domestic and cross-­border (e.g. international relations)


Community-­based partnerships with non-­governmental organisation groups or public/private sector groups (e.g. NGOs)

Community service and intercultural project work


International development assistance projects (e.g. strategic partnerships with universities abroad)

Cross-­border delivery of education programmes (commercial and non-­commercial) (e.g. joint teaching activities in winter and summer schools, distance courses, development of campuses abroad)

International linkages, partnerships, and networks (e.g. membership and active participation in international academic consortia and associations

Alumni abroad programmes

4) Extracurricular activities

student clubs and associations

international and intercultural campus events

liaison with community-­based cultural and ethnic groups

peer support groups and programmes (e.g. international summer schools)

The first category, ‘academic programmes, is the easiest to understand and the one that has received most attention, especially when thinking about the Bologna Process and the convergence towards the creation of a European Higher Education Area. It is linked to the creation of cultural and exchange programmes, double and joint modules, double and joint degrees, and the like.

The second category, ‘research and scholarly collaboration, refers to international academic research, its methodology, channels (international partnerships, agreements), and tools (conferences, seminars, workshops).←85 | 86→

The third category, ‘external collaboration, is linked to an institutions international relations, collaborations that can be developed in house and across borders with foreign universities and other international organisations, possibly resulting in joint projects, winter and summer schools, online courses, and the like.

‘Extracurricular activities are complementary to the scope of internationalisation and support students in the concretisation of a full and satisfying international experience at home and abroad (Agoston & Dima, 2012, p. 52).

The aforementioned categories are examples and not exhaustive of the process and tools for curriculum internationalisation. Indeed, if we refer to Schuller and Vincent-­Lancrin (2009), we can identify other internationalisation categories, recently adopted by the OECD, which are: internationalisation (1) among people (students and university personnel), (2) among higher education institutions, and (3) by programmes and projects.

In conclusion, it is important to point out that there are no clear indications on how to internationalise the curriculum; there is not one way that fits all universities, although most universities are aware that international experience can foster the development of specific international competences requested and acknowledged in the labour market and required for the long-­term employability of graduates (PRIN EMP&Co. project).

The COMPALL project: How to foster internationalisation at a global level

Internationalisation, abroad or at home, is becoming an essential part of higher education. Academic partnerships at the global and European level are essential to reach this goal, which is in line with the European Commissions strategy ‘European Higher Education in the World.

The activities that can be developed within partnerships are manifold and may include mobility exchanges, research cooperation, the development of common curricula, joint or double degrees, international projects, and all the other activities indicated in Table 1.

Indeed, as indicated by European legislation, universities can work together in the development of special degrees, such as double and joint degrees. The process is facilitated if universities share a strong tradition of cooperation, because such a background can strengthen the mutual interest in signing an agreement for the definition and activation of a common educational path.

Double degrees should follow some simple and basic rules:←86 | 87→

Double degrees should be developed on the basis of strong international collaborative links and of a common will to develop a study programme shared between two higher education institutions from different countries.

A double degree corresponds to two qualifications issued by the two institutions offering the shared study programme.

The double degree is a tool for encouraging the effective implementation of the Bologna Process at all levels (institutional, political, strategical, individual), strengthening international, inter-­institutional cooperation and innovation in curriculum development and research.

Double degrees must receive legal recognition in all European member states, as mandated by the Bologna Process.

The Winter School in ‘Comparative Studies in Adult and Lifelong Learning (COMPALL) goes in this direction. It takes place every year at Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg as part of its internationalisation strategy and that of the universities of Lisbon (Portugal), Padua (Italy), Florence (Italy), Pécs (Hungary), Aarhus (Denmark), and Helmut Schmidt University (Germany), all members of the COMPALL strategic partnership.

All the above-­mentioned universities offer masters degrees and PhD programmes in adult and lifelong learning. The Winter School is part of these study programmes.

At the same time, the Winter School is supported by some important associate partners, which collaborate in the study programme1.

From a didactical point of view, the winter school can be seen as a joint module organised in two different phases:

1) a first preparatory phase organised as an online and/or on-­campus preparation guided by partner universities, supported by specific materials (online tutorials), and aimed at the composition of a transnational paper to be discussed in the second phase;

2) a two-­week intensive phase at the Würzburg campus in Germany, during which, based on the transnational papers written by participants, international policies in adult and lifelong learning are discussed, field visits to adult and continuing education providers are arranged, and comparisons between selected issues in the field of adult and lifelong learning are made. The comparisons←87 | 88→ are organised in two main parts. The first part focuses on theories and approaches to European and international lifelong learning strategies, directly by key European stakeholders in lifelong learning (e.g. EAEA, Cedefop, etc.). The second part focuses on small work groups comparing specific aspects of adult education (e.g. professionalisation, policies and practices for the development of young adults employability, etc.).

The COMPALL partners have included the joint module in their own study programmes. In particular, the University of Florence and Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg worked towards the construction of a Double Degree in Adult Education as an extended version of the joint module, or as the natural extension of exchange and mobility programmes.

Figure 1: Structure of the International Winter School


Source: (07/2017)

In other words, starting from the principles that guide the COMPALL joint module – integration into the curricula and personalised pathways – they developed a degree programme designed and delivered by both of them based on an agreed international curriculum that includes a mandatory mobility experience for all students in their third semester as well as classes, workshops, seminars taught in English in both countries, and the like. At the end of the programme, and after its completion, students receive two individual qualifications (one from each partner university) having the same value (Knight, 2008b).←88 | 89→

The action of the two universities was based on three main components: 1. community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), 2. curriculum, 3. strategies and procedures, tools that help professors to connect to the curriculum internationalisation activity and to focus it on embedding internationalised inputs and learning outcomes in the study program.

For a conclusion, but not in conclusion

As we pointed out at the beginning of the essay, the problem of internationalisation interferes with higher education policies far beyond what one can think of. And it is not only a matter of changing the language of instruction or adopting texts in a community language, it is not even a question of implementing the good practice of the ERASMUS, which was, in reality, the model of internationalisation at European universities.

It is, once again, important to understand that:

[t]he Global Value Chain entails a growing mobility of tasks between companies and people – especially of talents – within supranational labour markets. Policies and systems must acquire a growing openness to the global dimension of training, in all their joints. Globalisation affects all professional figures. From early childhood, the growth of interdependence on a global scale requires young people to live and grow in a world that asks them to adapt to new cultures and traditions and to manage all kinds of diversity. (Federighi, 2014, p. 32)

In the words above lies the real and profound reason for the importance of internationalisation. The COMPALL project has been the interpreter of this emergency and of this need. For almost five years, dozens of students have come together for a few weeks to study the themes of lifelong learning, adult and learning education topics in a myriad of English language descriptions, trying in a handful of days to share a project and ideas. This is a great challenge addressed through a multiplicity of small but no less important victories.

The Winter School project, which is part of the COMPALL project, is a good practice case for the internationalisation of adult and continuing education and lifelong learning because it 1) welcomes students from around the world, not only from Europe but also from India, Korea, Russia, the United States; 2) creates a space for dialogue and sharing ideas on topics, problems, and research of common interest; 3) allows for using English as the common language for exchange and communication; 4) builds bridges of theoretical and practical knowledge; 5) supports the development of communicative skills; 6) involves the activation of flexibility and problem solving; 7) fosters an entrepreneurial mind-­set in each←89 | 90→ participant; 8) opens up new horizons of different knowledge shared with each other; 9) implements innovative research methodologies; 10) broadens the outlook on adult and learning education.

Another benefit already mentioned, aside from the extensive but profoundly diverse construction and communication relationship, is about comparing research methodologies, behaviours, ways of being, and approaches to the study. There is nothing more gratifying than knowing how to build new communications. Indeed, we can really invoke the strength of the relationship, overcoming barriers, both spatial and linguistic.

Indeed, internationalisation is a problem for men and women who decide to come together to face the thorny theme of human understanding and the ethics of behaviour. If we do not look at the problem from this point of view, we will not be able to cope with the scope of education and training actions that will change our world of human beings into a world of automation and robots. Tomorrow is already among us, and we must act as citizens of the world, of time, and of space.


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1 The associate partners are: Universidade do Minho (Portugal), University of Delhi (India), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India), International Institute of Adult & Lifelong Education, New Delhi (India), Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg (Germany), Obafemi Awolowo University (Nigeria).