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What Makes a University International?

The Times Higher Education’s roundup of 2016’s “World’s Most International Universities" is out. It uses three key criteria to determine what separates these extraordinarily global universities from the rest. Let’s take a closer look at what it really means to be an international university in today’s increasingly outward-looking higher education arena.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
What Makes a University International?

Qatar University. University of Luxembourg. University of Hong Kong. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. University of Geneva. University of Macau. ETH Zurich. University of St. Gallen. National University of Singapore. Imperial College London. What do all 10 of these prestigious universities have in common? They all claim top ten spots in Times Higher Education’s roundup of 2016’s “World’s Most International Universities.”

THE uses three key criteria to determine what separates these extraordinarily global universities from the rest. Let’s take a closer look at what it really means to have a “global outlook” in today’s increasingly outward-looking higher education arena.

1. A High International Student Population

With a whopping 42 percent of international students, it’s no surprise that Qatar University tops the list when it comes to a diverse student makeup. Why is diversity so important? While we often think of the benefits of international exchange as they apply to the exchange students themselves, an increasing body of research indicates the invaluable degree to which these international students enrich their classmates. In fact, the results of a survey published in the Journal of International Students reveal that American college graduates who interacted with international students during their domestic studies reported everything from the development of new cognitive skills to better foreign language speaking skills.

According to the report, participation in international classrooms facilitates in students “the ability to question their own beliefs and values; acquire new skills and knowledge independently; formulate creative ideas; integrate ideas and information; achieve quantitative abilities; understand the role of science and technology in society; and gain in-depth knowledge in a specific field.

The natural takeaway? The more student diversity in classrooms, the more profound the impact on students. These perspectives stay with them as they progress through academia and enter the workforce.

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2. A Large Proportion of International Faculty

While opportunities for students are usually highlighted in conversations about the imperative of mobility in higher education, the importance of international faculty cannot be overlooked.

In the classroom, teachers with a global perspective have the ability to raise international awareness by encouraging students to think outside their own narrow frames of reference. This can mean anything from using examples from a variety of cultures to countering assumptions based solely on limited student backgrounds and experience.

According to a Huffington Post blog penned by John T. Delaney, Former Dean, Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and the College of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh, “Professors with strong global awareness are better equipped to help students apply lessons with an international context and to develop international content and perspective within their courses.”

But the benefits of an international faculty aren’t limited to the classroom. Global faculty members also make connections with local companies, leaders and innovators, and community members, positioning them to further break down the barriers geography in order to more effectively promote cross-cultural collaboration.

Meanwhile, the research itself is also made more comprehensive by the acknowledgement of the impact and influence of cultural differences. Lack of an international perspective, meanwhile, can weaken results.


3. International Collaboration Abounds

What’s better than one scholar or researcher with an international outlook? Two or more scholars and researchers from varying backgrounds each with their own international outlook. Hence, the final criterion used by THE to differentiate today’s most global universities: Research collaboration.

THE’s rankings factor in research papers with co-authors from two or more countries. Why does it matter? Because the return on investment of international research -- particularly in the areas of science and technology -- is significant within the developing world with the potential to yield both social and economic benefits.

Research collaboration ensures that innovators not only have access to the latest expertise, but also the channels through which to exchange ideas and knowledge. Improved access also

applies to everything from shared facilities and equipment to foreign funding sources.

No university make it into the THE ranking without demonstrating a commitment to establishing an international presence. However, some universities have achieved particularly noteworthy results when it comes to cultivating truly global environments. A diverse student body, global faculty, and commitment to international research collaboration positions universities -- and their graduates -- for success in an increasingly borderless world.

Joanna Hughes


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.