The changing role of leadership in international education

Over the past year several conferences, reports, documents and articles have addressed the changing role of internationalisation in higher education and the need to rethink the why, how and what of it.

One aspect has been receiving little attention in this debate: how the change impacts on the role of leaders in international education – referred to in the United States as senior international officers – both now and in the future.

The recently published call for action by the International Association of Universities (IAU), “Affirming Academic Values in Internationalisation of Higher Education”, describes the changes in internationalisation clearly. It states among other things:

“Internationalisation today is remarkably different from what it was in the first half of the 20th century, in the 1960s or 1980s...The resulting changes in goals, activities and actors have led to a re-examination of terminology, conceptual frameworks and previous understandings and, more importantly, to an increased but healthy questioning of internationalisation’s values, purposes, goals and means.”

These changes inevitably have an effect on management and leadership in international education, but are these well prepared for the impact?

Training by trial and error

International education has thus far not been perceived as a profession for which you can prepare at the undergraduate or graduate level, not in the US nor Europe nor elsewhere. It is also a subject that is multidisciplinary in nature and so is not based in one specific school or discipline.

Of course, there are programmes called ‘international education’ or ‘international education development’ in the US, but they focus more on development education and do not, or only marginally, address internationalisation. The same is true for higher education management programmes in different parts of the world.

In general, one can say that senior international officers (SIOs) receive their training primarily by trial and error, either emerging from positions in administrative international offices (commonly the case in Europe) or from academia (commonly the case in the US).

One can question if the current broad and complex state of internationalisation can build an adequate leadership if leaders are drawn from either of these backgrounds.

As was discussed recently in Club 33, a gathering of SIOs from different countries, both in the US and Europe it appears increasingly difficult to find SIOs who fit the current requirements. Neither an administrative nor an academic record seems to be sufficient.

The IAU document states that “internationalisation...requires an active, concerted effort to ensure that institutional practices and programmes successfully balance academic, financial, prestige and other goals”.

Where can one find people with a combination of these skills?

Strong interest in studying internationalisation

There is certainly a strong interest among young academics and practitioners in the study of internationalisation of higher education.

Professor Jeroen Huisman, director of the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath, told me that most of his professional doctorate and PhD students these days want to do their thesis on an aspect of internationalisation.

The management of international higher education masters programme at Edge Hill University in the UK has attracted students from different countries; there are other programmes in countries like Australia that are drawing students; and at the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, which I am developing in Milan, I have also noticed a strong interest from all over the world in PhD and masters studies in internationalisation.

The people taking part in these programmes are mostly students who combine an administrative job in an international office with part-time graduate study, as they want to move up to more senior positions.

They realise that you need to have not only administrative but also academic qualifications to be a leader in international education, because mainstreaming of internationalisation implies a stronger focus on teaching, learning and research, an intensive interaction with deans and faculty, and a broader and deeper understanding of internationalisation.

It will take some time though before this new generation is experienced enough to take over. In the meantime, intensive training programmes are required to fill the gap. The pool of academics from which institutions can draw for supervising new masters and PhD programmes and training courses is limited, though.

Barbara Kehm and Ulrich Teichler from the University of Kassel published an article in the Journal of Studies in International Education in 2007 in which they noted that there are “only a few researchers who continuously engage with the issue and have made it their field of specialisation. There are even fewer centres or institutes that have internationalisation of higher education as a core theme of their research activities.”

This is still the case, although initiatives such as those described above provide some light at the end of the tunnel.

Universities should stimulate and facilitate their junior administrative and academic staff to develop the skills and knowledge to direct the new internationalisation agenda. That investment will pay off in the future.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, CHEI, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, and professor of internationalisation of higher education at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education. Email: