Leading universities’ response to rising nationalism

We are at a particularly confronting moment in history. Brexit in the United Kingdom and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States are just particular manifestations of a growing scepticism among many of our citizens about the downside of globalisation.

Internationalisation is increasingly construed as an ideology of urbanised so-called ‘elites’ and is increasingly feared, resented and now actively opposed by those who perceive they are being left behind or left out altogether. The situation is likely to get more strident shortly as national elections roll out across Europe into 2017. Xenophobia is growing, including in other regions. Africa, Asia and Australia are not immune.

Our confidence in the positives of increased engagement and integration of communities, economies and education systems, and in deepening international and intercultural engagement generally, is receiving a reality-check. Were we wrong? Was it just, in the late British historian Tony Judt’s provocative words about the European community, a grand illusion?

Survival of the fittest

Wherever they are, universities cannot but be affected by these changes. It would be naïve to think they will try to respond with the common good primarily in mind. Some might, but all will have a primary interest in their own survival.

Much emerging higher education research attempts to identify the organisational imperatives that universities worldwide need to attend to in order to survive and thrive. Four strike me as particularly important:
  • • Universities urgently need to navigate change and to differentiate themselves to stay viable in the longer term.

  • • This means that diversity among universities will increase and this can only be a good thing.

  • • Different approaches – let’s say different ‘business models’ – need to be found and aligned to each institution’s strategic future; no one size fits all.

  • • Finally, universities need a flexible and agile workforce. A focus on nurturing specialised and self-renewing academic and professional staff who are responsive to change will be crucial.
In the prevailing management literature, ‘creativity’ is often said to be the most important leadership quality for enterprises seeking a path through complexity. More than ever, international officers and their teams are enjoined to be creative in finding solutions to the challenges their universities face.

Creativity without understanding the context in which we operate will be sterile and most probably counterproductive. So it is important for international educators to have a good grasp of their own institution and its ‘saga’, but also the external forces affecting their institution. This means keeping abreast of the broad megatrends affecting our societies, specifically those trends affecting higher education locally and globally.

Shared leadership

When it comes to leading and managing within the university itself, the leadership literature points to foreground shifts in attempts to deal with complexity and uncertainty – a move away from the leader as a control agent towards a more diffused, shared leadership among senior peers and their teams.

As internationalisation becomes integrated into the core functions of universities, and as responsibilities for collective achievement of strategic outcomes are increasingly shared, this opens up spaces for internationalisation practitioners to engage in more creative and collaborative problem-solving.

A successful leader of internationalisation will be someone who is oriented to the future, willing to embrace and to lead change and able to mobilise and to persuade others to contribute collectively and creatively to solutions to complex problems.

It is no longer the case, at least in Australia, that a single individual stands at the head of international activity. With the mainstreaming of internationalisation, multiple individuals and teams have a responsibility for one aspect or another of internationalisation – student mobility, international relations and global affairs, offshore delivery, learning and teaching, international strategy, international work placements and international research engagement.

The roles now are multiple. Responsibility is specific to these functions, of course, but is not confined to them. To that extent responsibility for internationalisation is dispersed – in some sense, it is shared across the institution.

Specific competences are implied and defined to a large extent by specific functional roles and responsibilities. But there are identifiable broad competences that apply regardless of function.

Necessary skills

Recent publicity around the 2016 World Economic Forum pointed to the top 10 skills professional leaders are said to need in 2020 in order to thrive in the fourth ‘Industrial Revolution’. The top five skills are:
  • • complex problem-solving,
  • • critical thinking,
  • • creativity,
  • • people management, and
  • • coordinating with others.
At least two of these skills are intellectual. At least two (and, if creativity is included, three) of these are people skills.

Leadership of internationalisation in universities in practice will increasingly be shared and distributed. It will involve fundamental social processes such as personal interaction and the ability to persuade. It will also involve the courage to engage in experiential learning to produce desired outcomes.

Competences in these areas will be essential for successful future leaders of internationalisation. Competences must be both broad and deep. We will all need to apply our knowledge across a broad range of situations: strategy, operations, technology, people engagement, business functions and cultural and geographic arenas. And we will need to ensure that we have deep knowledge in at least one discipline, business function, cultural or geographic area.

A leadership challenge

No doubt the re-emergence of nationalist chauvinism means the climate is now less conducive to our efforts to encourage and support the internationalisation of our universities. However, we should have faith in the agency of individuals and of education institutions and their leaders to find ways through and around the current troubles and to successfully impart the importance for all of us to have a wider view of the world and not to be fixated on our little patch of it.

This is a leadership challenge and we should rise to it. We need to understand the context, be innovative and prescient about the varieties of futures of internationalisation and to accelerate our actions, individually and collectively. With the necessary leadership skills and tools, universities will continue to engage effectively at an international level and be drivers of positive change.

Dennis Murray is a senior honorary fellow, LH Martin Institute for Leadership and Management in Tertiary Education, the University of Melbourne, Australia, and director of IDEON International Higher Education.