What is an international strategy, really?

Global engagement should look beyond revenue from international students and consider the university’s place in the world, says David Carter

David Carter is Head of the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading

Recently on Wonkhe, Vicky Lewis challenged the higher education sector to reconsider “fundamental questions about why the institution engages globally”.

Quite often the blunt answer is: to drive income growth. There is nothing wrong with this, especially where income leads to investment in teaching and research. But can we do better?

Lewis’s commentary builds on her survey of international strategies among UK higher education providers, and their recent evolution.

Universities still welcome the benefits that international students bring in terms of income and diversity. But they increasingly value other things: student and staff mobility; internationalisation of the curriculum; and, broadly, having a positive global influence through research and teaching.

Mind the gap

The language of international strategy has evolved too. We are as likely now to talk about global engagement as we are internationalisation. Lewis uncovers a gap, however, between this language and the indicators used to measure success. For all the strategic breadth, the single most preferred indicator is still international student recruitment.

There are three explanations (that I can think of) for this gap. The first is found simply in the evolution of strategy that Lewis identifies: perhaps it is no surprise if the preferred indicators lag behind the rhetoric.

The second has to do with the availability of performance indicators, and a very modern tendency to value what is most easily measured. But in fact there is no shortage of surveys, audit tools, and league tables for the broader aspects of international higher education.

This leads us to the third explanation: performance indicators must be prioritised. The headline global engagement indicator is likely to be the one that fits with other strategic imperatives and, in particular, the need to boost income.

Successive reports by the Financial Sustainability Strategy Group (FSSG) and the Higher Education Policy Institute have shown how hard it is to run a university without cross-subsidy. Research, in particular, very rarely recovers its full economic costs; and yet this is an activity that most universities seek to grow.

Anybody who conceives of public universities as businesses should dwell on this point. No rational business would seek to put pressure on its balance sheet by growing loss-making activity, or not without good reason.

The reason is found in institutional strategy and the public benefit provided by research. In this context, and given other financial pressures, one route to financial sustainability is through international students, who typically pay much higher fees.

The fee differential is defensible because public funding for home students is only intended to pay the cost of their education; public funding for research lies elsewhere. An international student, by contrast, invests more broadly in the success of their chosen university.

The strategy of the virtuous circle

It becomes possible to frame institutional strategy as a virtuous circle: high-quality research builds the reputation of a university, which attracts international students; the extra funds are reinvested in research, which raises the university’s profile even higher. Of the six institutions used as case studies in the FSSG report, at least three were actively pursuing versions of this strategy.

The strategy of the virtuous circle has a lot to recommend it. It aims to grow not just income but also knowledge and influence. It also carries significant risks, including the following:

  • The risk that international students are valued only for the income they bring. This can lead a university to take further risks around the English competence of students or the diversity of international intake.
  • The risk of falling short. The fee differential is not as great as it appears. Many international fees are discounted. International students can come with high acquisition costs, including agents’ fees and institutional marketing and recruitment overheads. Transnational education projects may bring alternative student recruitment pipelines but these projects can be expensive to run and take years to develop.
  • Above all, the risk of having all the strategic eggs in one basket. The international student recruitment market is as competitive as it is hard to predict. It is subject to swings both for identifiable reasons – everything from immigration policy to the price of oil – and for other reasons that appear to come from nowhere. A university that fails to meet its international student targets is still committed to its high research costs, and so the virtuous circle collapses. The coronavirus pandemic has cruelly exposed this weakness.

In its simple form, the international strategy of a virtuous circle university is not a true international strategy but rather a plan to mitigate the risks outlined above.

Of course, many international strategies are more complex. But, when the underlying driver is simply income, a complex strategy can become incoherent.

Strategic incoherence leads in turn to poor decision making. It can also expose a university reputationally. Globalisation inevitably brings us to work in jurisdictions that have poor human rights records. Asked why this is, we typically reach for the language of liberal internationalism: it is better to engage with the world than not; and our own academic values are always protected. It helps if you really mean it.

Three questions to ask

As an alternative, we can consider what a true international strategy might look like and what the drivers are. A true international strategy, simply put, considers the university’s place in the world. It should answer all three of the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be a global university? Any university operates in a global marketplace, not just for students but also for talent and ideas. Among academic staff in UK higher education, 32 per cent come from overseas. To formulate an international strategy is to find the institution’s best place in these marketplaces. We should think in terms of what a university has to offer through global engagement, and not just what it hopes to gain.
  • What does it mean to be a student in a global university? We want as many students as possible to study abroad or learn another language. But joining a global university should be an international experience for everyone, with gains in global outlook and intercultural competence.
  • What does it mean to have a global university on your doorstep? In the current political climate, the last thing universities need is to become little islands of internationalism with no connection to their local communities. Any true international strategy should have its local dimension.

These are not the only questions to ask but they might be useful to senior leaders and governing bodies when framing strategy and prioritising activity. Other virtuous circles are possible: for example, from high-quality education to employability and influence and back to reputation, which is good for teaching and research.

Both the examples that I have given – the virtuous circle strategy and the “true” international strategy – have their merits. The former can be considered as an enabling strategy, the latter as a defining strategy. A university’s international strategy is really an extension of the broader institutional mission.

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One response to “What is an international strategy, really?

  1. A very well considered description, which has given me a new perspective on my own past career in global academia. Thanks, David.

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