For real impact, universities should shake up their global engagement strategies

Institutional strategies for internationalisation have evolved since the turn of the century but now is the time for a fundamental rethink, argues Vicky Lewis.

Vicky Lewis is founder of Vicky Lewis Consulting, an international strategy consultancy for higher education institutions

Back in the early 2000s, the international strategies of most UK universities were commercially driven and focused largely on international student recruitment. Over time, this has evolved.

More comprehensive strategies emerged, which saw internationalisation as a journey. However, these were often inward-looking: concerned with making the ethos, functions, and processes of the institution more “international”.

In recent years, we have seen more outward-facing global engagement strategies. These are driven by the desire to build international relationships and play a valuable role within the global ecosystem of knowledge.

But is further evolution along this trajectory enough? I would argue that it is not. The experience of the global pandemic should lead to a strategic reset. So how might that manifest itself when it comes to internationalisation?

Global social responsibility

The pandemic has sharpened our focus on a number of areas touching on global engagement that were already becoming prominent issues, from the climate emergency and sustainable development to the meaning of “Global Britain” and our future relationship with Europe. From the need to address ingrained and systemically reinforced inequalities to the potential of digital technologies to make higher education more accessible.

The societal role of universities and their responsibility to contribute to the global common good has become a notable topic of debate. The pandemic has brought the importance of international collaboration to the fore and there is a stronger emphasis on solidarity and connectedness.

At the same time, Covid-19 has wrought havoc with university finances. It is tempting to look to international student fee income to help stabilise budgets in the short term. But it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity we have to define long-term aspirations, underpinned by a reframing of internationalisation, and to develop sustainable strategies to move towards these.

Addressing the ‘why?’ questions

Claire Taylor’s recent comment piece, Ask not what you might do, but why you’re doing it, raises two points that are worth looking at through an international lens.

First, she argues that now is the time to move away from the functional and transactional into the realm of inspiration and innovation. This requires a focus on what we value and why.

In my recent research on future priorities for UK university strategies for global engagement, this was a common refrain among interviewees. They emphasised the importance of going back to fundamental questions about why the institution engages globally.

Those leading development or review of the strategy should explore with key stakeholders such questions as:

  • What are our primary drivers for internationalisation?
  • What do we mean by global engagement?
  • What bearing do institutional values and mission have on our approach?
  • Are there principles associated with global engagement that the university community cares about strongly enough to take a stand on?
  • Which global issues will we tackle head on?
  • How will we “be international” in a sustainable and ethical way?
  • What needs to change and why?

Considering these questions at the current time, having experienced the shock of Covid-19, may generate a new set of responses. Universities, as learning organisations, have a chance – maybe even a responsibility – to rethink their strategies and, in the words of one interviewee, “be brave”.

Encouraging diversity

The second point raised by Claire is the importance of seeking diversity of thought and stepping beyond our comfort zone. This too was echoed, from an international strategy perspective, by some of my interviewees.

In the UK, our approach to internationalisation is constrained by Anglocentric traditions. Past strategies have often been built on colonialist assumptions.

Our commercial orientation has – for many institutions – led to over-dependence on international student fees and over-reliance on specific countries. Over the past year or so, we have seen the risk this presents, especially when geopolitical tensions and global health crises come into play.

I would argue that the Western model of internationalisation is unsustainable and that those who work within it have a responsibility to reverse its negative consequences. This involves moving away from inequitable partnerships and initiatives that exacerbate brain drain.

Instead, we should build relationships that benefit all parties and engage in projects that help to address challenges – our own and those of other nations – jointly. Internationalisation itself needs to undergo a process of decolonisation.

A first step towards this is including a diverse range of stakeholders in strategy debates, development and delivery. One interviewee pointed out that you need to include people from the Global South who can spot problematic notions and challenge assumptions. Internationalisation strategies also need to reflect the student voice more than they have in the past.

This is about more than wide consultation. It requires different forms of engagement and means listening with the intention of understanding – and then taking action. By doing this, we can take the first step towards rethinking our institution’s approach to internationalisation, pursuing bolder, more distinctive strategies, and making a global impact to be proud of.

4 responses to “For real impact, universities should shake up their global engagement strategies

  1. Great piece Vicky, looking forward to hearing more about this at our Council of Validating Universities webinar on the 25 June

  2. Good article, thanks for asking the “why?” questions. It is really important to get a precise answer. I feel it hinges on how you plan to realize the benefits of an “international classroom”.

    It also depends what you define as a future “global leader”. UC Berkeley for example believes global leaders should go to volunteer in a village in Costa Rica, while Stanford sends students to work and network on the stock exchange in Singapore.

    1. Thank you, Albert. In the past, I don’t think enough time has been spent exploring the ‘why?’ questions. UK (and other) universities have made assumptions about what internationalisation is for and what it involves. I like your point about defining what is meant by a ‘global leader’ in a given institutional context (and following through with ways to develop the skills, qualities and attributes that best align with this).

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