Why are research universities going global?

Despite the significant increase in the number and type of international activities – from branch campuses to MOOCs and aggressive international student recruitment – many institutional efforts appear to be launched without a clear idea of best practices or how specific activities might be productive and meaningful for a particular institution.

Empirical knowledge of how and why institutions expand these activities, and whether they are successful, remains largely anecdotal.

Why do universities embark on new projects and activities that engage the institution outside of its national boundaries? What motivates individuals and their institutions to include transnational relations among their core strategic interests and concerns when considering the future path for success? Why are more foreign students and faculty recruited and why are curricula and research agendas more international and global in scope?

The motivation of institutions, and their leaders, appears to be multiple and complex. As part of our larger effort to generate a taxonomy of different kinds of international engagement by universities, and reflecting a recent research paper published as part of a larger project based at the University of California, Berkeley, we offer here an exploration of possible institutional logics and rationales used to justify what are sometimes significant financial and institutional commitments.

1. Pedagogical and curricular logics

International activities that involve student learning and experience in collaboration with foreign partners commonly have curricular or pedagogical rationales.

This is clearly true with dual, double or joint degree programmes, for example. They can also apply to efforts in individual courses or seminars to integrate peers in other countries through various learning technologies or through punctual meetings or events.

Mobility and exchange programmes, as well as group study abroad, are perhaps the most common expressions of pedagogical and curricular logics that include international experience as a key element of learning.

Some colleges and universities have set goals for increasing the number of students participating in mobility programmes, to recognise the pedagogical value of international experience in their curriculum. Cost, however, is a limiting factor as it is often more expensive to go abroad than to remain at home for study.

For advanced postgraduate students, the pedagogical issue is different and more individualised. Faculty member collaboration must be central to placements or projects of postgraduate students at a partner institution abroad. Issues of mentorship and research activity become crucial to integrating foreign experiences into the academic programme.

2. Research, data access and expertise logics

As research and discovery of new knowledge is a primary function of the university, there can be no boundaries or limits to where the scholar or scientist may find the natural, physical, human, social or cultural phenomenon that they study.

Certain disciplines, fields and areas of study depend on the collection of data, specimens and samples that require direct access to natural and social-cultural sources to successfully pursue their research or inquiry.

Epidemiology, anthropology, foreign language and culture, astronomy, biosciences and environmental sciences are examples of disciplines requiring access to sources and data beyond national boundaries. It is increasingly difficult to identify any area of study that does not in some way require international if not global relationships and connections.

Establishment of relations between individual scholars and scientists in other countries has been a reality both informally and formally for generations. As institutions adopt more proactive and formal policies and initiatives to establish connections abroad, the logic of research needs, data access and research collaboration are often rationales for these initiatives.

It is a compelling logic because it supports a fundamental mission of the university and is often led by faculty members and departments.

3. Network development logics

In many respects, the telecommunications and internet revolution resulted from a logic of the power of networks. The notion that networks of many kinds – social, professional, institutional and electronic – can overcome geographic, cultural, time zone and national boundaries underpins much of what constitutes the phenomenon of globalisation.

It is not surprising that institutions draw upon a network logic as a rationale for more international initiatives.

Institutional efforts to establish relations with universities abroad are often based on the logic of constructing a global network of partners that will somehow increase the probability that faculty, students and alumni will have access to individuals and institutions in nations and regions that they may not otherwise obtain.

European universities have perhaps the most developed and sophisticated network structures and processes as a result of their geographic proximity and push for greater regional integration. Institutions in other nations and regions are increasingly active in network building because it has become such a fundamental element of organisational and professional life everywhere.

This makes the network logic very flexible and adaptable to many contexts, objectives and strategies. If there is no other logic or rationale for engagement across national borders, the assumed necessity of networking is often sufficient.

4. Competitive logics

Universities and other higher education institutions compete with one another in many ways. Competition for students, faculty, funding and the Holy Grail of prestige pervades institutional actions of all sorts. International initiatives necessarily include competitive logics as well.

Competitive logics underpin international activities that seek to gain access to new sources of students and faculty or offer alternative revenue sources. Universities always seek to have partnerships or agreements with foreign institutions that they believe have at least the same level of prestige or recognition as them. If a partnership can be developed with an institution of higher prestige, that is even better.

Marketing and branding logics are motivated by competition. Perhaps more prevalent in the United States because the culture is permeated by philosophies and beliefs rooted in the supposed superiority of free market capitalism, universities have increasingly sophisticated communications, marketing and public relations units that work to put every university initiative or action in the most positive light possible.

The signing of an exchange agreement or collaboration with a foreign institution is always an opportunity to call a press conference and highlight the university’s international focus and global connection. Little matter whether or not the agreement in question involves core activities and significant resources or simply the possibility of student or faculty exchange.

In an increasingly globalised world, it is important to build an image or brand that somehow demonstrates relevance of teaching and learning and connections to international and global realities.

5. Market access and regional integration logics

Recently, the dean of Yale School of Management announced a new international strategy to create a network of partner business schools in countries with rapid economic growth and new business investments.

These relationships, it is hoped, will provide opportunities for students and faculty to engage with their international counterparts to create professional networks that provide learning and research experiences as well as potential business opportunities in the future.

The global economy is increasingly linked to emergent economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. It is not surprising that numerous universities in Europe and North America appear to have targeted these countries as high priority locations for the development of relationships, activities and programmes.

The logic seems to be that these countries will increasingly be influential in world affairs, and thus establishing relations with local institutions and professional peers will create long-term benefits for attracting students and faculty as well as pursuing research agendas and fundraising opportunities.

In Europe, the Bologna reforms and other initiatives that encourage greater integration of education and research systems stimulated the creation of numerous partnerships, alliances, consortia and networks of universities between and among European institutions.

Bologna’s creation of common degree structures and common academic credit and records systems go a long way towards the creation of a region-wide education space that can contribute to the construction of the regional economy as well as political and social networks that cross national boundaries.

Recent efforts to develop common quality, accreditation, qualification and professional licensing standards are also linked to a desire for further integration of national systems and the creation of greater mobility in labour markets.

The logic of regional and transnational integration coming out of Bologna appears to underpin many of the international projects and initiatives of European universities across a broad range of countries. One can also observe regional and market access logics in other areas of the world.

The ASEAN University Network, or AUN, functions as a vehicle for inter-university collaboration and regional higher education integration. In addition to regular meetings of rectors of member universities, AUN has activities related to credit transfer regimes, quality assurance processes and academic programmes in South East Asian Studies.

It also serves as coordinating body for mobility agreements and scholarships with countries and regions outside South East Asia – for example, the Erasmus Mundus programme of the European Union and a Chinese government scholarship programme.

East Asia has significant student mobility in the region driven, by geographic and cultural proximity. Increasingly, large numbers of students from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are attending universities in China and vice versa.

Australian universities are among the most active in recruiting international students from Asia and in establishing partnerships and satellite operations in the region. A regional and market access logic appears to underpin many Australian initiatives in the Asian Pacific region.

6. Institution building, technology transfer, development

A significant number of international projects at universities are related to efforts aimed at helping less economically developed nations create or improve programmes and practices and enable institutions to contribute to economic and social development in their countries.

Government agencies responsible for foreign assistance and some philanthropic foundations contract with universities to undertake ‘capacity building’, joint research and training activities in places like Africa, Latin America and South and South East Asia.

Agriculture, health and education sectors are often the focus of such projects. Institutions can make use of these institution-building and technology-transfer projects as vehicles for building partnerships and opportunities for teaching and research activity abroad.

The issue of who benefits more from these endeavours remains an open question because host country institutions have historically suffered from ‘brain drain’ and a lack of sufficient resources to sustain activities over time.

7. Revenue and resource-driven logics

As the demand for higher education, advanced research capacity and elite university status increases globally, the relative scarcity of student places, talented researchers and scholars and prestigious institutions increases the monetary and financial value of whatever services that leading universities are able to offer or provide.

At least this is the perspective of economists and business people. It is also a view held by many governments and national policy-makers.

Increasingly, it appears that universities are adopting logics for international-global projects that are pecuniary in nature. Obtaining new sources of revenue has become a major motivation for seeking international relationships and the recruitment of students and faculty from abroad.

The rapidly growing market of international students during the past decade combined with decreasing government funding for higher education in numerous countries has led to aggressive policies of international recruitment by institutions in Australia, the UK and New Zealand.

Continued growth in demand for places in universities and colleges from abroad is leading more and more institutions to launch efforts to increase the number of foreign students who typically pay higher fees than their local counterparts.

Canada, China, Japan, France, Spain, The Netherlands and South Africa have succeeded in attracting rapidly increasing numbers of foreign students, often with strong support from government agencies. Fee-paying degree students are not the only opportunity for sources of revenue from abroad.

Institutions in the US and Europe recognised for their research achievements and capacity have increasingly negotiated agreements with national governments in South East Asia and the Middle East to fund major scientific research projects and to assist in the creation of local research capacity by helping in the development of new research-oriented universities or advanced research centres.

Some prestigious institutions have agreed to create degree programmes based in a host country in return for what appear to be significant investments or donations to university endowments.

It should not be assumed that the generation of revenue is the sole motivation for these endeavours. Even those projects that have large financial inducements are also justified as being useful vehicles for international exchanges of students and faculty, contributing to curricular or pedagogical improvement or the creation of research opportunities.

Financial incentives are, nonetheless, common rationales for a growing number of colleges and universities, many with diminishing or constrained funding.

8. Social responsibility logics

Some international activity at institutions of higher education is motivated by students and faculty who want to assist individuals and communities in poor countries by volunteering time, labour and knowledge.

These activities may or may not be part of the formal curriculum and are often funded by outside organisations such as NGOs, foundations and individual donors.

Students volunteer time, labour and expertise to individuals and communities by providing services such as improving water quality or constructing or maintaining schools, hospitals and housing units.

Some universities in the US have faculty and students engaged with ‘social entrepreneurship’ activities. The idea is to use some basic business and organisational techniques and an entrepreneurial or new business philosophy to assist NGOs and community-based social or health service organisations to become more effective and efficient and able to generate revenue to support their activities.

The Talloires Network is an example of an international network of universities with a shared interest in ‘civic or community engagement’. It sponsors conferences, a newsletter and information sharing on different programme models that provide opportunities for students to become involved in communities locally, nationally and internationally.

9. National security logics

In the US, some universities receive research funds and postgraduate student fellowships from the government to support the study of languages and societies that are viewed as important to national security. Most often these are ‘not commonly taught’ languages and the countries are located in regions where there is the potential for conflict.

Some government funding for research with international partners in areas such as computer science and engineering are also justified on national security grounds. Although some institutions and individuals may not support the idea of a university assisting the government on issues related to national security, these funds have sometimes been used to support the broader international engagement of the institution.

National security logics do not appear to be very common outside the US, although one might argue that there is some correlation between the size of national security budgets and the likelihood that some state funding of international initiatives is linked to security logics.

In countries such as China, Israel, India, Brazil, the UK, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, with sizeable defence budgets, one might suspect that national security logics are part of the rationale for investing in research and projects focused on global and international issues and relations.


As international engagement has become more central to the life and success of the university, we must expand our knowledge on the range and variety of these engagements, and how and why institutions make the choices they do, and determine the patterns of success and failure.

While universities have long been active internationally, many recent initiatives are relatively untried and extremely entrepreneurial. This calls for more and better empirical research at the level of individual institutions.

We hope to contribute to this research agenda through our project Research Universities Going Global based at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley and the International Centre for Higher Education Research based at the Universität Kassel.

* Richard J Edelstein is a research associate and John Aubrey Douglass a senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley.