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In a less stable world, universities may need to consider themselves as foreign policy actors

James Coe asks if it is time for the sector to look again at the political impacts of the internationalisation agenda
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

UK universities have a significant, diffuse, and sometimes undetectable, global footprint.

This is not always born out of strategy but the collision between university activity that is inherent in universities’ missions, and the incentives that are available to them. The recruitment of international students is about bringing a UK education to a global audience, but it is also very much about generating income too. Research is (increasingly) about addressing global problems but melting ice caps cannot be wholly understood from Guildford – it requires connection and collaboration with the finest minds across the world.

Even if there were no incentives to work internationally it is comforting to think that universities would choose to do so in any case. Where universities do talk about their international work in strategic plans it is usually couched in the language of cooperation, collective action, and coordinated responses to mutual interest and problems.

The very term “internationalisation” – in research reach, ability to attract students, or knowledge exchange – is often used as a synonym for excellence in that the ability to engage internationally acts as proof of the “world-leading” nature of UK institutions.

Higher education is a global market. International league tables are a barometer for success and attractiveness. There is global competition for the most successful academics and researchers. And there is an international moral race to be the most sustainable university in the world.

Universities, in short, are thrust onto the global stage through a mixture of financial necessity, moral mission, competition, and the highly interconnected nature of research. There’s no doubt that the international activities of universities have a positive impact on the UK economy, on the global skills base, and on the extension of knowledge. But doing lots of things doesn’t necessarily add up to a clear and coherent a view of universities’ role in the world or how that role dovetails with that of other actors that might be driven to a larger extent by national political and diplomatic agendas.

In fact, it might be even more fundamental than that: in a world in which the UK is facing major international challenges arising from Brexit, hostile nations, and geopolitical instability in other parts of the world, should universities start thinking of themselves as de facto foreign policy actors in their own right?

To consider universities as foreign policy actors is to acknowledge that the impact of their work is not limited to their own sphere of interests. Instead, to conceptualise universities as global shapers is to acknowledge their work, whether intentionally or not, can profoundly impact the international political economy.

A university’s foreign policy can emerge through considering elements of international work and whether they coalesce into a coherent whole, and whether there are any conflicts between state values and international activity.


To give some examples. UK research security has recently attracted significant press interest. In the report University Engagement with China: An MIT Approach MIT makes a specific appeal to consider how work with China furthers and inhibits the US’s global ambitions. The report positions MIT’s research work as not only about intellectual enquiry, or even about economic partnerships, but it is instead a careful consideration of the interlinkages between research, partnerships, and MIT, and by extension America, in the world. It is intentional and direct about actual and perceived tensions between security and research.

When it comes to research more generally there are well established ethical approval processes. For example, Sheffield Hallam University has guidance on research conducted overseas which places emphasis on individuals to understand local contexts, adhere to ethical standards within the country, and seek advice on local culture and customs. The University of Edinburgh has a developed toolkit that combines ethical considerations of international research and the ways in which these ethical considerations can be practically enacted, enforced, and maintained. And while the government’s R&D roadmap uses the language of collaboration and global impact there is sometimes a gap between support for individual researchers and national strategies where there is an opportunity to articulate global research ambitions.

Perhaps the most visible international work of universities is in international student recruitment. There are significant ethical concerns surrounding international student recruitment practices and international student experiences. However, this is different to deeply considering how international student recruitment has an impact on the global education system, how recruitment enhances or detracts from the UK’s soft power, or whether there should be specific ethical considerations in international recruitment policy.

The risk is that student recruitment can be exclusively treated as a financial decision, or exclusively treated as an education issue, without considering both the agency of students and the conditions through which UK universities enable, constrain, or support, student mobility.

There are also issues of knowledge exchange and IP, considerations of ethical investment and sustainability, and deep thinking to be done about the implications of branch campuses and staff recruitment in the context of the UK’s relationship with hosting countries.

More of the same?

To think intentionally of the impact of universities’ international work shines light on how universities are shaped by and are shaping the world for good and for worse. Universities generally already have international strategies and a commitment to acting ethically in the enactment of those strategies, but I’d suggest it is rarer for those strategies to be informed by or in dialogue with national foreign policy objectives beyond the implicit value of diffusion of soft power.

In the same way that the emerging civic university agenda has made universities deeply consider the impact of their work locally, an intentional focus on impact internationally, could allow practices to emerge that fit within universities’ wider moral, economic, and academic missions.

The future may continue to be a mix of incentives, local action, and places of intentional activity. However, it is possible that the expectations of universities as global actors will be different tomorrow than they are today. This may mean that it is necessary to lean more toward the intentional and develop ideas around global impact, security, and the knock on impacts of worldwide ambitions, as part of any international strategy.

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