The growing role of senior international officers

Over the past decade university internationalisation has been described, debated and occasionally decried, with some scholars claiming its inevitability while others speaking of its imminent demise.

But while there may be little consensus among scholars on what internationalisation could or should entail at universities around the world, the ambition of most universities is to engage in internationalisation on a strategic, comprehensive level.

From mission statements to business collaborations, institutions have expanded far beyond the traditional approaches of physically sending and receiving students to and from foreign countries. To this end, new positions are continually being created and refined as universities develop the roles that are broadly labelled senior international officer or SIO.

These individuals and their continually developing roles should spark our interest: Who are they; how do they advocate and implement internationalisation, and what might it become under their leadership?

How they interpret the sometimes vague presidential mandates, review and negotiate a growing number of transnational opportunities and coordinate international efforts throughout the campus community will have long-term impacts upon institutions in the 21st century.

Who are SIOs?

Top university administrators are almost invariably internationalisation advocates who view global activities as critical for success in the future. Thus, many institutions have created senior administration positions with a mandate to make internationalisation happen at the university.

At most institutions, senior international officers are a fairly recent invention, emerging in significant numbers only during the past several decades.

Their titles vary – some are directors, others are deans, assistant or associate vice-presidents or provosts – but the gist of the position is the same: lead global initiatives at the campus-wide level and ensure that the institutions meet their strategic mission related to internationalisation.

To determine a clearer picture of senior internationalisation officers and their roles, the Association of International Education Administrators, or AIEA, has surveyed its membership periodically over the past decade.

The most recent edition of the survey, directed by Darla K Deardorff, AIEA Executive Director, and compiled by CK Kwai, shows a professional field that has both similarities and diversity in the roles related to internationalisation.

One of the more remarkable findings is that because of the increased resources that universities are devoting to these roles, the survey showed 50% of respondents had been in their SIO position for fewer than five years. Yet those who fill the growing number of positions are not new to administrative positions, with around 60% of SIOs being between the ages of 51 and 65.

These are seasoned academics and half hold tenured positions at their university – placing them in the growing category of academic-administrators who understand both the history and the future of the university.

Unlike other emerging fields like marketing and social media, leadership at this pivotal position largely remains the domain of established academics, although the average age of SIOs does show some signs of slowly dropping. And their positions are rising in importance.

According to the AIEA survey, over half of SIOs saw new positions in their field created with increases in the prestige of the role. Reflecting this trend, the titles held by SIOs have changed significantly from 2011.

Although “Director” was the most reported title (25% of respondents), there has been a growth in the numbers of SIOs with the title of Associate or Assistant Vice President/Chancellor/Provost (24%) and following these was Vice President/Chancellor/Provost (18%).

Implementing internationalisation

The continued development of SIO-related positions is a response to the changing nature of internationalisation. Traditionally internationalisation has involved the movement of people, sending students and faculty alike on study abroad, including service learning or academic exchange.

But the AIEA report suggests that these activities, while still plentiful, have become secondary for SIOs. Instead, their top three responsibilities include linkages-partnerships, representing the institution in institutional dealings, and strategic planning for internationalisation.

For many SIOs these changes have made them creators, not merely doers of internationalisation. As part of this, they are increasingly becoming closely linked to the central operations of the university. No longer are they located in remote offices supporting student exchange.

Instead they are being located in the central administration, although at some smaller institutions there can be the continued issues that arise from fluctuations in funding and interest that can be associated with changes in institutional leadership.

For the most part, the mandate of SIOs is becoming central to the mission of universities and colleges, playing a significant role in implementing components of institutional strategic plans. They are charged with making internationalisation happen and are increasingly doing so from positions in the campus leadership team. They have significant power to lead the way in defining and guiding internationalisation in the coming decades.

In the hands of the senior academics that fill the ranks of the SIOs, we can be confident that the externalising initiatives they pursue will take their institution abroad and bring the world back home for the benefit of the campus community.

Daniel Kratochvil is a special advisor to the President, Abu Dhabi School of Management, and Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.


Paradoxically, so many (not all, of course) of these SIO positions are, in my experience (and the results of the survey mentioned in the article do show exactly that) "awarded" to seasoned university administrators from other areas of university administration (or, in some other cases, to professionals coming from completely different fields than higher education, such as banking, marketing or corporate management). These individuals don't quite have a good grasp on what it means to be international (or global), let alone how to internationalise an entire university by translating their schools' noble visions into solid strategic plans and programs. In many cases, they barely speak any foreign language, have no experience dealing with foreign cultures or even with international students. Expecting them to strategically plan and develop their universities' international outreach seems like an impossible mission, at a time when, indeed, without international outreach no university will be able to survive for the long term. As long as universities are not going to break the pattern of "internal promotions" in higher education globalisation, the "growing role" of SIOs from the title of this article will remain nothing more than a "role" assigned to follow a trend and not to truly internationalise.

George T Sipos on the University World News Facebook page