Internationalising higher education in a conflicted region

Sheila Trahar, 20 November 2015


I’m writing this blog in Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, having been here to facilitate the 4th and final workshop of the EU Tempus project with which I’ve been involved since November 2012 and which will end in a couple of months. There are seven Israeli higher education colleges and several European partners involved in the Fostering International Cooperation with Higher Education Colleges in Israel (IRIS) project. The University of Bristol is the only UK partner and my role is as the leader of the Work Package (WP) Internationalisation of the Curriculum (IoC).

As a project partner, I learned quickly that conceptualising internationalisation in Israel is especially complex because of its segregated populations and that higher education is where many students have their first contact with those outside their faith and/or ethnic community. There is, therefore, the potential for the sector to educate for diversity in this conflicted region.  Being in the same classroom, however, does not necessarily reduce tensions. Academics need to be willing to facilitate interaction and this can be uncomfortable.

Drawing extensively on my own research in international higher education, I designed and led 3 workshops in Israel between November 2013 and May 2014 and wrote and produced a publication ‘Internationalisation of the Curriculum: Concepts and Working Practices’, translated into Arabic and Hebrew, to complement them. All 3 workshops were designed and structured to encourage the maximum sharing of experiences, progress and obstacles in many different ways. All of the activities were a) those that could be used in participants’ own teaching and ‘cascading’ of internationalisation of the curriculum (IoC) and b) designed to enable partners to interact with each other as much as possible.

In addition to the workshops, participants from the Palestinian Arab College, Al Qasemi and one of the Israeli colleges, YVC, visited Bristol in 2013. Partners met with key University of Bristol people, including the PVC International, academic staff and several ‘international’ students.  Through these meetings, the partners began to understand the complexities of an international UK university and to consider, strategically, how to develop internationalisation in their own institutions. The 4th workshop this week was designed to be a celebration of partners’ successes in implementing internationalisation of the curriculum principles in their programmes and institutions and it was wonderful for me to witness the progress that has been made as well as the plans for continuation and sustainability.

On an intellectual level, I have been immensely impressed with the progress that the Israeli partners have made in establishing what internationalisation means for them, in their context, and in internationalising their curricula. Motivated by our sessions on the cultural mediation of learning, teaching and assessment and encouraging intercultural communication in multicultural learning environments, some partners are establishing programmes similar to the ‘Difference and Diversity in Israeli Society’ programme at David Yelta College of Academic Education in Jerusalem, programmes that aim to facilitate all students and academics to challenge their perceptions of each other and to integrate global perspectives into the learning, teaching and assessment processes.

I have not resolved the personal tensions that I experienced at the beginning of the IRIS project; they have, however, changed. I have learned more about the complexities of the ‘political situation’ – as it is referred to. I have become aware that there are many people in Israel – of all faiths and ethnicities – working together to effect a peaceful solution in this troubled region. I consider that dialogue is crucial in helping us to understand, not only why others hold the values and beliefs that they do, but also what informs our own values and beliefs. I feel privileged to have been a part of the dialogue in enabling some greater awareness of how internationalisation of higher education in Israel can play a significant part in moving towards greater social justice and understanding in this conflicted region. As one of the partners wrote after we ended our final session this week:

‘Academics CAN and SHOULD educate for intercultural competencies and sensitivities. Peace takes practice, and it begins in the classroom’.

EFMD Annual event

Brussels 8 June 2015. Image credit:

Editor’s Note: Sheila Trahar is Reader in International Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. She has published widely in the area of international higher education and intercultural learning and teaching. Her book Developing Cultural Capability in International Higher Education: a Narrative Inquiry was published by Routledge in December 2010, and she has also edited several books and Special Issues of journals.