YOUR TURN: The Meaning of 'International'

Truly international programs embrace difference and change, not standardization.
The Meaning of 'International'

TODAY, NEARLY ALL business schools promote themselves as international. Marketing messages about diverse student bodies, global business perspectives, and overseas partnerships have become the norm, no matter a school’s scale or location. But what does the push for internationalization in business education mean for students? And does it actually better prepare them for their careers?

Perhaps not. The problem is that, in our industry, “international” has come to mean “standardized.” International business programs have landed onto a homogenous middle ground, where they each re-create the same norms and conventions of global business on their home campuses.

Moreover, there are question marks around how we measure a business school’s level of internationalization. For example, if a school admits more international students than local students, does this mean that the school is international? Or that it struggles to attract domestic applications? If a large number of a school’s graduates accept jobs overseas, does that point to the school’s internationalized curriculum? Or to problems in the local job market?

While a school could measure its level of internationalization by the number of students it admits from other countries, a far better measure is the number of participants who come to the program with prior international work experience. These students can bring valuable insights and international experience to discussions and group projects.

It’s time that we clarify what it means to be an international business school. We must avoid what I call “faux internationalization,” which produces uniform global citizens comfortable only in generic multinational business environments. Instead, we must embrace truly internationalized educational strategies, which result in open-minded graduates able to operate within, and appreciate the qualities of, different individual cultures and mindsets.


When the Financial Times evaluates the internationalization of MBA programs for its rankings, it looks primarily at criteria such as the percentage of students, faculty, and board members who are not from the school’s host country; the amount of international content in the curriculum; and the global mobility of participants before and after the program. Although the FT also factors in “international course experience” such as student exchanges, study tours, international internships, and joint ventures with international partners, it pays greater attention to what business schools pull into their home campuses than to what they send out.

Perhaps in response to what the rankings most reward, business schools, too, seem to place greater emphasis on the international experiences they can offer at home than on those they offer in the field, promising to expose students to multicultural communities of learning on campus. But in many cases, it’s more likely that international students will standardize their views to the norms of the host countries as a way to more easily pass their assessments. Any multicultural mixing often happens in social, not classroom, settings.

To produce graduates who are comfortable in different cultures, business schools must make the expression of different cultures an essential part of their missions. Yes, the recruitment of international faculty and students is important, but that’s just a first step. Faculty also should be encouraged to embrace international views in their research and teaching, and students and faculty alike should be encouraged to promote and discuss the differences of their individual cultures. Schools should pursue international accreditations that offer insights into program structures and content at institutions in other countries, and they should include members on their advisory boards with strong overseas backgrounds and perspectives. These individuals can steer program offerings away from faux internationalism and help school leaders design a strategy with short- and long-term deliverables focused on educating global citizens.

After all, some of the largest educational rewards of internationalization come not from pulling students, faculty, and partners in from elsewhere, but from pushing students and faculty out into the wider world.


Many schools do incorporate outward-facing international strategies into their curricula. One example is the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business in Colorado. With the support of Deutsche Bank, Daniels College sends its MBA students to Cambodia and Azerbaijan to see how microfinance works in practice; while there, they have the chance to work with microloan applications and get back to the basics of entrepreneurship. The University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana has sent its students to post-conflict areas such as Lebanon, Uganda, and Egypt to experience firsthand how the concept of “peace-through-commerce” works in practice.

A pillar of the international strategy at Nottingham University Business School in the United Kingdom is to ensure that all work students complete while at international partner business schools counts toward the pursuit of their degrees—this makes it possible for them to “learn and earn.” Undergraduates pursuing degrees in international business management at Sheffield University Management School spend their entire second year at partner universities in Europe, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, or the United States.

MBA students at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., have the opportunity to consult for an international firm, traveling to research the problem before presenting their findings locally. At my own institution, the University of Bradford School of Management in the U.K., we brand our study tours as “Entrepreneurs Across Borders” to emphasize that we want students to embrace different entrepreneurial mindsets. For this program, we send students to the Persian Gulf to experience local entrepreneurship in the Middle Eastern context.

Of course, international travel isn’t a viable option for all students, so schools should make a special effort to create international experiences for those who stay on campus. Again, this means not just recruiting students from other countries, but asking faculty to bring global perspectives into the classroom. Faculty should deliberately incorporate international case studies that explore differences in areas such as diversity, business practices, and ethical norms. They can ask students traveling abroad to share experiences by posting study tour blogs, as well as by offering briefings and leading group work once they return. Virtual international experiences can also be valuable—for example, some simulations can be run globally, involving participants from a range of time zones and cultures to re-create the nuances of international business.


Once schools have embraced truly international missions, the next logical step might seem a contradiction—to emphasize the value of difference by celebrating the strengths of their own regions. Each school’s programs also should reflect the character, personality, and business contexts of their regions; regional qualities should not be submerged or erased in the process of internationalization.

In our case, Northern England is very proud of its reputation for warmth and humor, as well as its no-nonsense way of speaking and its down-to-earth philosophy. Part of the world’s first Industrial Revolution, the region now is attracting new investment to become a “Northern Powerhouse” for the 21st century. Bradford incorporates these characteristics into the student experience both by cultivating informal relationships between students and faculty and by involving regional business entrepreneurs in our events and course delivery.

The best international business schools incorporate a multiplicity of different localisms, both in their regions and elsewhere in the world. Rather than try to standardize the concept of “international business,” they celebrate cultural differences on campus and appreciate the ways that they can make the best of the world’s varied local contexts.

Zahir Irani is dean, management and law, at the University of Bradford School of Management in the United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].