E-learning is missing link in internationalisation

Higher education institutions worldwide are subject to pressures that have grown in number and complexity. They recognise that the quality of their activities – research, teaching and learning and societal engagement – is integrally dependent upon sound internationalisation and digitalisation strategies (among other factors).

This is particularly true given the general context in which they operate: an environment characterised by the exacerbated global competition of knowledge-based economies. This competition reverberates in higher education.

Trends 2015, a study by the European University Association or EUA, tracked the growing importance of competition and cooperation in the past 15 years. Based on longitudinal data, Trends 2015 revealed that the importance of both competition and cooperation has remained stable during the period 2000-15, but that both are expected to grow by the same value (about 18%) in the near future.

The report also noted the growing importance of ranking schemes (up 10% from 2010) and the expectations that this will continue to be a central and mounting concern in the future.

European higher education has had a robust history of cooperation, particularly during the period when the Berlin Wall split Europe between East and West. A spirit of cooperation across the Wall was maintained, despite the many political vicissitudes and twists and turns of the Cold War.

This spirit drove many institutions (including the most prestigious) to establish partnerships across the continent with other institutions (including the least prestigious). Has this spirit changed?

Ranking influences partnerships

Internationalisation strategies are now common in many European universities: 93% of the 441 Trends respondents stated that they either have an internationalisation strategy (50%), intend to develop one (8%) or have included it as an element of the overall institutional strategy (35%).

An important element of this strategy is to identify the right partners for specific activities. Recent EUA studies have shown that ranking results are being used to shape both competitive and cooperative behaviour, particularly for those institutions that are included in a ranking: 56% of those responding to the Rankings in Institutional Strategies and Processes or RISP study stated that ranking results influence their choice of international partners.

They also monitor closely their competitors and use the collected data for benchmarking purposes. Trends 2015 showed that this is particularly true for those institutions aspiring to operate on the world stage and to be recognised as primarily research-focused universities.

Nevertheless, when looking at the choice of geographical targets, it is clear that partnerships within the European Union remain among the top priorities for universities and – importantly – for their students. In other words, despite the increased competition and globalisation, there is still a very strong basis – cultural, political, legacy partnerships – and incentives (funding instruments) to cooperate with a range of partners across Europe.

Internationalisation activities show a remarkable degree of homogenisation across Europe: 10 out of the 14 activities proposed in the Trends questionnaire received between 58% and 96% of positive responses.

MOOCs growth potential

A close look at the number of institutions interested in developing the bottom four activities might help anticipate future trends. Of the four, “MOOCs and other types of online learning” seem to have the most potential for growth: 29% of institutions are planning to develop them and this affects universities in a large number of countries.

This is followed by “capacity-building” (17%) and “offshore campuses” (13%), while “degree programmes taught in languages other than English” have the least potential for growth (11%).

Furthermore, Trends 2015 emphasised that strategic approaches to internationalisation should be supported by savvy use of information and communication technologies or ICT, but the link between the two is not as strong a trend yet and the strategic use of ICT is clearly under development.

When questioned about the objectives of e-learning, only 9% of institutions mentioned that it is being used to enhance internationalisation. A significant percentage of institutions do not offer online degree programmes (44%), MOOCs (40%), joint online learning offered with other higher education institutions (39%) or blended learning programmes (33%).

It may be the case that the link between internationalisation and e-learning has not been made yet because internationalisation strategies are now clearly in the hands of the institutional leadership while e-learning innovations tend to be with the faculties and even with individual academic staff.

The top management gets involved in ICT development at the strategic level because it is a costly expenditure, but strategies linked to e-learning have not matured yet and the link with internationalisation is still to come in many institutions.

This is clearly a story to be monitored if only because student populations are changing as a response to institutional outreach efforts.

A wide diversity of learners are being integrated into higher education – mature students, students with disabilities or from disadvantaged groups, ethnic minorities, students without standard entry requirements, international students, lifelong learners.

They all have different needs and uneven opportunities to travel: an institutional strategy connecting e-learning, particularly blended learning, with internationalisation and making possible internationalisation at home can only be positive to all of them.

Andrée Sursock is senior advisor at the European University Association and the author of Trends 2015: Learning and teaching in European universities.