What is Postsecondary Education Definition?

International Association of Universities

Internationalization is a concept in constant development and many different definitions have been proposed during the course of the past three decades or more. Diverse, often more specific ways, have been used to describe the process, such as, for example international education. Discussion about the differences and similarities with globalization has raged for years. Some have argued that having an overarching and agreed-upon definition of higher education internationalization is not essential, however, in most discussion or policy planning, having a clear understanding of the concept is a critical starting point. Furthermore using a common conceptual language or shared understanding is necessary for communication and dialogue among people in different settings and with different responsibilities.

For the purposes of its own work, especially for the Global Surveys it carries out, the IAU has adopted Jane Knight’s definition of internationalization:

Internationalization at the national, sector, and institutional levels is defined as the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of (postsecondary) education. (Knight, Jane., Updating the Definition of Internationalization, International Higher Education, Issue 33, Fall 2003. Boston).

Knight’s definition is intentionally neutral and does not specify the rationales, the positive or negatives consequences, or type of activities and actors associated with internationalization. It highlights another important dimension of the concept of internationalization that it is an ongoing process rather than a static state of being. Similarly, OECD emphasizes the process of internationalization:

the complex of processes whose combined effect, whether planned or not, is to enhance the international dimension of the experience of higher education in universities and similar educational institutions. (OECD, 1994)

Another useful term which, in many ways simply expands on the Knight definition is related to what ACE first coined as ‘Comprehensive Internationalization’ and which NAFSA has adopted as one of its central concepts.

Comprehensive Internationalization is a commitment, confirmed through action, to infuse international and comparative perspectives throughout the teaching, research, and service missions of higher education. It shapes institutional ethos and values and touches the entire higher education enterprise. It is essential that it is embraced by institutional leadership, governance, faculty, students, and all academic service and support units. It is an institutional imperative, not just a desirable possibility. Comprehensive internationalization not only impacts all of campus life but the institution’s external frames of reference, partnerships, and relations. The global reconfiguration of economies, systems of trade, research, and communication, and the impact of global forces on local life, dramatically expand the need for comprehensive internationalization and the motivations and purposes driving it. (John K. Hudzik in Comprehensive Internationalization: From Concept to Action. NAFSA: Washington, DC, 2011).

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. (De Wit, H. (2015) INQAAHE conference, Chicago, U.S.)


  • De Wit, H. (2011) Globalisation and Internationalisation of Higher Education, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), Vol. 8, No 2, pp. 241-248.
  • Altbach, F. G., Knight, J. (2007) The Internationalisation of Higher Education: Motivation and Realities. Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. 11 No. 3/4, pp. 290-305
  • Knight, J. (2011) Five Myths about Internationalization International Higher Education, Number 62 pp. 14-15
  • Knight, J. (2003) Updating the definition if Internationalization. International Higher Education, No. 33, pp. 2-3.
  • Healey, N. M. (2008) Is higher education really ‘internationalising’? Higher Education Volume 55, Issue 3, pp 333-355.
  • Jones, E. (2013) The Global Reach of Universities: leading and engaging academic and support staff in the internationalisation of higher education. In Sugden, R., Valania, M., Wilson, J. R. (Eds.) Leadership and Cooperation in Academia: Reflecting on the Roles and Responsibilities of University Faculty and Management. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
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