Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Cattolica International

Meet the experts. Internationalisation in their eyes: Hans de Wit

HANS DE WIT was Founding Director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore from 2011-2015, and a member of its Advisory Board 2015-2021. He became Director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College, 2015-2021, and now is Professor Emeritus and Distinguished Fellow of CIHE/Boston College. Before, he was Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, and Vice-President for International Affairs of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is a Senior Fellow of the International Association of Universities (IAU), and Chair of the Board of Directors of World Education Services in New York/Toronto. He is a founding member and past president of the European Association for International Education (EAIE), Founding Editor of the ‘Journal of Studies in International Education’ (SAGE), consulting Editor of the journal Policy Reviews in Higher Education, Associate Editor of International Higher Education, and co-editor book series ‘Global Perspectives in Higher Education, Sense Publishers. He has (co)written books and articles on international education and is actively involved in assessment and consultancy in international education, for organisations like the European Commission, UNESCO, World Bank, IAU, OECD and the European Parliament.

How has the process of internationalisation changed the characteristics of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore? And what are the policies and practices that Università Cattolica adopted to promote internationalisation abroad and internationalisation at home?

I became familiar with the international activities of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore around two decades ago, first via the active presence of Edilio Mazzoleni and his enthusiastic team of colleagues of Cattolica International at the annual conferences of the European Association for International Education (EAIE), and in the United States through its associations NAFSA and AIEA. My Australian colleague, the late Tony Adams, was an engaged advisor to Cattolica International and brought me in to provide additional support. This resulted in a decade of intense involvement in the international operations of the University, the first five years as Founding Director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI), now celebrating its tenth anniversary at the same time the University is proudly  celebrating its 100 years of existence, and then for the past five years as a member of its Advisory Board. Over the past decades I have seen how the University has grown in its international strategy from a strong but relatively isolated international operation to an even stronger and more integrated, transformative and comprehensive internationalisation strategy for the whole of the University. 

Internationalisation has two related components, internationalisation abroad and internationalisation at home. The first one is focused on inbound and outbound mobility of students, faculty, administrators, projects and programmes. The second one is addressing the curriculum, teaching and learning and the campus environment for students, faculty and administrators, both the local and the international ones.  Università Cattolica over the past decades has primarily focused on the first component, creating opportunities for its students and faculty to go abroad for part of their home degree (summer, semester or year) as well as promoting international students to study for a full degree or for a shorter period as part of their home institution’s degree in one of the campuses of the university. To make that happen, the University has established partnerships with institutions of higher education in other countries. 

Over the years this has provided an international, Italian and a specific Cattolica experience for many local and international students and faculty involved in these exchanges. Together with international research collaboration and capacity building projects for higher education in developing countries, in particular in Africa, the University has undergone a transformation from a rather local and national university into an institution of global dimensions. International is now embedded in many of the academic and administrative units of the University, in most of its academic programmes, and in its strategic institutional and departmental policies and approaches. Its internationalisation is no longer marginal and ad hoc as it was before but central and systemic. 

Does that make the University unique in the Italian or European context? I would not dare to say so. Italian and European institutions of higher education have seen a strong stimulus of their international dimensions, supported by programmes as Erasmus+ and the research framework programmes. But both in its numbers and in its strategic focus,  Università Cattolica is leading in the country and is a substantive player at the European and even global level. It is also thanks to its global approach, more international than other European universities, not focusing primarily on European cooperation but establishing partnerships with universities in all parts of the world, from North and South America to Asia and Africa. Cattolica International is central in these accomplishments but has successfully integrated the international dimensions and activities through the whole institution, avoiding in this way the risk of isolation of international from the rest of the University.

Building on the success of its partnerships and inbound and outbound mobility programmes, in recent years more attention has been given to the second component, internationalisation at home. Even though the mobility programmes have been successful and important, they only reach a small part of the students, faculty and administrators. To further mainstream internationalisation and reach all students, faculty and administrators, it is important to work on a strategy for internationalisation of the home campuses. Developing international programmes as part of the curriculum, training faculty and administrators on internationalisation of the curriculum and the support services and creating an international campus environment where local and international students and staff experience not only the richness of the local Italian atmosphere but also of other parts of the world, is a new but important dimension asking for attention and action. Several initiatives have already started, and others will develop. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected the University and the region, has created challenges for mobility but also opportunities for a different approach, including virtual exchange and mobility. 

The creation of CHEI ten years ago not only supports this strategic internationalisation process at the University but is also a manifestation of the importance of internationalisation for the University. The centre, of which I had the honour to be its Founding Director, provides support to the central administration and the different academic and administrative departments of the University, for instance on internationalising the curriculum, on the use of English as the language of instruction, and in assessing policies and practices. But the centre also supervises local and international PhD students in their doctoral research on the internationalisation of higher education, resulting already in a substantive number of doctoral graduates and academic publications. The Center did lead a major study for the European parliament on the internationalisation of higher education, resulting in a report that not only has influenced European policy but also globally has influenced the future direction of internationalisation. 

Cattolica International and CHEI are successful manifestations of how the University has internationalised and how it has become a mainstream strategic and transformative part of its current and future direction. Their success though has only and will continue only to be possible thanks to the commitment of the university leadership, its staff and its students to make the University more international, inclusive and innovative.

Article featured on Worldbound, edition n.7-2022.