‘Grande dame’ Susana Menéndez saying farewell

Susana Menéndez is also known unofficially at THUAS as the grande dame of internationalism in higher education. As a member of the Executive Board, she was the driving force behind our school’s ambition to become the most international university of applied sciences in the Netherlands. Now, ten years after her appointment, Menéndez is saying farewell. She was honoured for her service during ‘Leadership in Internationalisation of Higher Education’, a symposium held on 12 June.

Symposium Susana Menendez

The struggle for diversity and justice instead of social division is a common thread running through Susana Menéndez’s life and career. She arrived in the Netherlands in 1978 as a political refugee. Ever since, she has devoted herself to cultural diversity and creating equal opportunities. ‘The focal point of her work is where education and diversity converge,’ said Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Education, Culture and Science. ‘As a result of her immense commitment to an inclusive educational climate and cultural diversity, Susana has enriched education in the Netherlands.’ Mere words were not enough, however, and Van Engelshoven surprised Susana by awarding her the royal distinction of Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau.

Internationalisation

As an administrator, Susana had an extensive portfolio. After first taking on finance and operations when she was appointed, she focused for the last five years on education, research and internationalisation. As she has said herself, she was especially drawn to the last theme: internationalisation. It was not by chance that the theme of this symposium was also internationalisation: a hot topic that’s triggered a lot of controversy in recent months. The media has been full of analyses about the influx of foreign students. Internationalisation has supposedly ‘gone too far’. English is allegedly replacing Dutch as the language used in higher education and thus excluding Dutch students. It looks as though institutions of higher education are recruiting foreign students as a source of income.

A cosmopolitan dream

Is higher education’s ‘cosmopolitan dream’ going up in smoke? Prominent speakers at the symposium put the situation into perspective. ‘Globalisation has led to viewing internationalisation with a lot of scepticism. Brexit and Trump’s election have sent a shockwave through higher education,’ said
Dr. Marijk van der Wende, Professor in the Faculty of Law, Economics & Governance at Utrecht. ‘Educational administrators have stressed the importance of inclusiveness, openness and diversity as core values for higher education. Now, the international project is under fire: we believed in an ideal and ignored the danger signs,’ she emphasised. ‘It’s forcing us to broaden our perspective. We should be strengthening the link between internationalisation and diversity. We’re faced with having to integrate students with various cultural backgrounds within an inclusive educational climate.’

Developing talents

This was confirmed by Nienke Meijer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Fontys University of Applied Sciences. ‘In recent decades, there’s been a preponderant focus on economic growth and prosperity. Now, attention is shifting to the quality of growth, welfare and sustainability. Higher education is playing an important role in this transition and can’t remain on the sidelines,’ she said. ‘Higher education can contribute to an inclusive society by offering as many people as possible an opportunity to develop their talents. Higher education can also play a role in the education and personal development of resilient students with an open world view: young people who are open to creativity, innovation and cooperation. We have to create a learning environment in which every student can become a person with a meaningful role in society.’

All the elements

According to Dr. Hans de Wit, Director of the Center of International Higher Education and also a Professor at Boston College, higher education still has a long way to go. ‘It’s a misunderstanding to think that internationalisation is a goal in itself or that higher education should unquestionably embrace a mentality aimed at inclusiveness. Having a sound strategy with a definite target on the horizon is crucial. A fragmented approach should make way for one in which internationalisation involves all the elements of higher education, including research, knowledge transfer and learning. Embedding internationalisation in the curriculum will also have to involve improving the quality of professionals at all levels.’

A focus on the advantages

‘There’s one important reason why higher education should do absolutely everything to ensure that internationalisation doesn’t fail,’ said Bert van der Zwaan, Rector Magnificus Emeritus, Utrecht University. ‘And that is that students achieve more in an international classroom than in a homogeneous learning environment and have better career prospects. But most important of all is that diversity is crucial for the quality and innovation of education. A clear vision and strategy focused on the advantages of internationalisation, however, are crucial.’

A window to the world

Susana made a passionate plea for looking at internationalisation from more than one angle. ‘It could be that internationalisation starts right around the corner: here, for example, in our city’s Schilderswijk neighbourhood. We could learn a lot from our migrant students who have grown up in a bicultural home and speak more than one language. We should convince them that this is an enrichment, not a disadvantage. This means that those of us in education shouldn’t be obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon language, culture and traditions,’ she said. She also appealed to higher education to keep the window to the world open. ‘The world is changing, and education is on the front line of these developments. In the future, our students will have to rediscover themselves – not only as professionals but also as persons and citizens – in a world that’s constantly changing. At The Hague University of Applied Sciences, we’ve long referred to this as global citizenship. It’s not the same as cosmopolitanism. It’s about education based on values and centred on the personal development of our students.’