Rethinking Internationalization at Home from a System Perspective: Evidence from China’s Higher Education Institutions

Research highlighted:

Zhang, Y. (2022). Rethinking internationalization at home from a system perspective: Evidence from China’s higher education institutions. International Journal of Chinese Education, 11(1), 2212585X221095881.


This study explores the strengths and more importantly the limitations of the current research of Internationalization at Home (IaH) in relation to equity. To do this, I draw on a survey of Chinese university students to examine 1) the relationship between their intercultural interaction with international students, partly operationalizing IaH, and their intercultural competence; 2) compares the effects of intercultural interaction and study abroad on students’ intercultural competence; and 3) examines the extent to which students’ opportunities for intercultural interaction with international students depends on the type of their institutional affiliation. It finds that study abroad, interaction with international students and learning foreign languages are positively associated with students’ intercultural competence. However, the effects of study abroad and intercultural interaction do not differ and are not additive. It also finds that students from prestigious universities are more likely to have high intercultural interaction with international students. The findings confirm the strength of IaH as an equitable approach at the institutional level. However, it raises questions on the impact of systemic inequities on IaH and calls for rethinking the objective of IaH for all students from a system perspective.

Equity and Internationalization at Home

Internationalization has long been recognized as an institutional imperative to promote international research collaboration, enhance global ranking and reputation, and improve students’ intercultural understanding. One of the most important activities in internationalization is student mobility, including outbound mobility, such as students studying abroad for degree programs or short-terms exchanges, and inbound mobility in the form of institutions recruiting international students justified by financial and cultural benefits brought by international students.

Yet, what concerns the field of internationalization is the elitist nature of student mobility. Globally, only 2.48% of the students in higher education institutions had the opportunity to study abroad (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2021). In response to this concern, the concept of Internationalization at Home (IaH) was proposed and implemented at the institutional level, in the hope to bring international experience to all students, including students who do not have the opportunity to study abroad. IaH is defined as “the purposeful integration of international and intercultural dimensions into the formal and informal curriculum for all students, within domestic learning environments” (Beelen & Jones, 2015). IaH is often regarded as an approach that equalize the field of internationalization. However, most research on IaH focus on single institutions or comparison of a few institutions. It might be true that the IaH approach addresses inequity issues in internationalization at the institutional level. However, institutions may differ significantly in their internationalization resources due to systemic inequity, which may result in students from various institutions benefiting differently from IaH. 

The Chinese Context

China is a case that this article uses to illustrate that the current understanding of IaH in relations to equity may be limited at the system level. China’s higher education system is highly stratified. One example is the Double First-Rate project, only around 5-6% of the Chinese institutions are designated to receive ample financial resources from the government to achieve the goals of becoming world-class universities or housing world-class disciplines. These universities are also largely protected from enrolments expansion to ensure the quality of education at the universities. These universities tend to have more resources for their internationalization activities, which is closely linked to the goal of becoming world-class universities. Alarmingly, top universities in China also tend to enrol students from better social-economic backgrounds. This dynamic raises concerns that institutions differ in their capacity to internationalize the campus that benefit their students.

This Study and Implications

This article explores the strengths and more importantly the limitations of the current research of Internationalization at Home (IaH) in relation to equity from both institutional and systemic perspectives. To do this, a survey of Chinese university students was conducted with the following research questions: 1) What is the relationship between Chinese university students’ intercultural interaction with international students and their intercultural competence? 2) How does the effect of intercultural interaction compare to that of study abroad? 3) To what extent students’ institutional affiliation explain their opportunities for intercultural interaction?  Chinese university students’ intercultural interaction with international students operationalizes one aspect of IaH. Comparing the effect of intercultural interaction and study abroad helps us understand whether IaH benefits students’ intercultural development from institutional perspective. Moreover, examining the impact of institutional affiliation on intercultural interaction helps us understand whether IaH truly equalizes the internationalization field from a system perspective.

Two important findings come out of this study. First, as seen in Table 2 from the published paper, intercultural interaction is positively related to student intercultural competence and its effect is not statistically different from that of study abroad. This finding confirms that IaH does benefit students’ intercultural development and there is no evidence that students’ intercultural understanding must be developed through the often-expensive study abroad opportunities. This finding suggests that students can alternatively choose to participate in IaH activities on campus for intercultural development, which is much more affordable. This study only focuses on intercultural interaction between domestic and international students, one aspect of IaH. Future research could consider how different aspects of IaH, such as international curriculum, relates to students intercultural understanding.

Another important finding is that students from prestigious universities are more likely to have more opportunities for intercultural interaction, as seen from Table 3 of the published paper. This corroborates with the hypothesis that system inequity issues may affect the objective of IaH benefiting all students. More prestigious universities tend to have more resources either financially or in terms of human capital to create opportunities for IaH and support the implementation of IaH. This finding is important as it raises concerns of how IaH can achieve its goals of benefiting all students, if operating in a system of inequities. This finding calls for research on IaH to consider incorporating systemic factors in the research and rethink IaH from a system perspective.

Authors’ Bio

You Zhang (张又)
University of Toronto

You Zhang is a PhD Candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), at the University of Toronto. Her current research focuses on international student mobility, higher education regionalization, China-Africa relations in higher education, and anti-Asian racism and international students. She has a geographic interest in the East and Southeast Asia region. She co-founded the East Asia Special Interest Group under the Comparative and International Development Education Center at OSIE, where with her colleagues, they organize activities and symposiums to raise awareness of educational issues related to the Asian Diaspora and the Asian region. Her recent research has appeared in Higher Education, Higher Education Quarterly, Canadian Journal of Higher Education, and the Journal of International Students. She can be reached at or her twitter @YouZhangYoyo

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun) Bian