Study Abroad

English: The Impact on Higher Education Abroad

We live in a closely connected world where globalization has diminished boundaries between countries and regions. Higher education institutions around the globe have certainly played an enormous role in this shift by opening their doors to an international population and integrating intercultural aspects into university curriculum.

It is more common than ever for students to study or even complete a degree in another country, a process commonly referred to in the academic community as the internationalization of higher education.


One of the outcomes of the internationalization of higher education has been an increase in the number of classes taught in English in other countries. Whether this shift is a positive or negative one is widely debated. This article will outline some of the key points to consider in regards to the increasing global dominance of the English language.

What is internationalization?

Before continuing, let’s lay out a textbook definition of internationalization of higher education. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) provides the following definition:

  • Internationalization is the conscious effort to integrate and infuse international, intercultural, and global dimensions into the ethos and outcomes of postsecondary education. To be fully successful, it must involve active and responsible engagement of the academic community in global networks and partnerships.

English as a dominant language

As universities attempt to become integrated in the international academic community and prepare students to meet the demands of an international marketplace, courses and programs taught in English have increased significantly as English has become established as one of the most significant languages of academic communication and publication, and a dominant language in the 21st century.

This shift may seem like a positive one when it comes to study abroad and the ability to transfer credits and coursework between countries. However, the strong dominance of English over other languages in higher education has been met with criticism and skepticism in the academic community, which refers to this change as “English imperialism.”

Some of the potential negative impacts of the growing dominance of the English language include:

  • Increased social inequality – Both on the individual and institutional level, those who have access to, and who can afford to take advantage of resources to learn English and employ English-speaking staff will most likely benefit from internationalization. Those who don’t will be at a severe disadvantage.
  • Teacher unpreparedness – It’s possible that in some cases, non-native English professors aren’t entirely prepared or qualified to construct a curriculum and instruct in English, yet they are required to do so. This may have an effect on the quality of instruction students receive.
  • Local language and culture downplayed – In order to attract the highest number of English-speakers and make money through their international student tuition fees, it may be the case that a curriculum is created with the English-speakers in mind rather than the local students in terms of both language and culture.

The last point is particularly important when discussing the future of languages other than English in higher education.

Implications for other languages

An increase in instruction and publication in the English language abroad has promoted the opportunity for English-speaking students to complete coursework or degree programs in other countries. However, this shift has significant implications for speakers of other languages, especially regional or minority languages.

Language policy planners have used university campuses as spaces where regional and minority languages that are endangered can be revitalized and spoken, such as the Basque language in northern Spain and Gaelic in Ireland. At the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (University of the Basque Country), for example, students can study and and complete their degrees in Basque instead of Spanish or English. Moreover, at Trinity College Dublin, students are encouraged to complete their studies in Gaelic.

Despite efforts to promote instruction and studies in regional minority languages, it is difficult to ignore the importance of research and publication in the English language. Students and academics around the world find themselves playing the “international journal publication game” by publishing their work in English in order to increase the likelihood of landing a good job or future research opportunities. The consequence of this trend is that the value placed on publishing in local languages is low.

The main implication to be drawn here is that international interconnectedness in higher education creates and promotes a certain uniformity that can engulf both language and culture. Minority languages may have less relevance in the future of higher education as globalization continues to promote mobility and as English continues to dominate academia.

Reflect on your role

The point of outlining potential negative impacts of globalization in higher education is to consider all sides of the topic. Previous articles, such as The Career Benefits of Study Abroad: It’s Not Just a Vacation point to the positive benefits of studying abroad in order to gain profitable skills such as cross-cultural understanding and global-mindedness. However, it’s equally important to think critically about your role as an English-speaker studying at an institution abroad so that you might be more sensitive to the local culture.

While studying abroad, be sure to make an attempt to learn as much as you can about the local language and culture! Being actively involved and integrated in the local community will make your experience studying abroad more positive, and will show a lot about your character to those you come into contact with.

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.