Call for national HE internationalisation strategy

Ninety per cent of Swedish higher education institutions believe a national higher education internationalisation strategy is needed, according to poll findings presented by the special investigator on internationalisation, Agneta Bladh, to the annual conference of the Association of Swedish Higher Education.

They said the hindrances to internationalisation must be identified, that the role of the different public organisations should be clarified and that policy areas should be better coordinated at national level.

The countries they were most interested in collaborating with were China, India and the United States.

The findings were discussed during a seminar at the conference attended by higher education leaders, including Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson, which discussed why Sweden needs a strong international perspective in higher education, what steps institutions should be taking and what a national strategy for internationalisation should contain.

The discussion was organised in cooperation with the special investigator for internationalisation and Stockholm University and included a discussion of strategies for internationalisation.

In addition to Hellmark Knutsson, speakers included SUHF Chair Helen Dannetun, Rector of Stockholm University Astrid Söderbergh Widding, Policy Advisor for the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders Mark Frederiks, former Secretary-General of the International Association of Universities Eva Egron-Polak, Chair of the International Association of Universities Pam Fredman and the special investigator for internationalisation in Sweden 2017-18 Agneta Bladh.

In her presentation, Egron-Polak quoted a 2014 International Association of Universities or IAU Global Survey that showed that the level of importance of internationalisation had increased or substantially increased for 61% of higher education leaders in the previous three years.

She said it was important to get the balance right between a national strategy and higher education institutions’ strategies for internationalisation.

She stressed that institutional autonomy had to be maintained and research and teaching had to be “morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power”.

A national strategy had to offer “a spring-board, not a straitjacket” for higher education institutions.

Where it could help is in facilitating collective action; countering the tendency of the free market to set an international higher agenda that contradicts the values and interests of the country and higher education institutions; in overcoming structural obstacles such as restrictive visa policies, funding problems and regulations; and supporting higher education institutions’ engagement when intergovernmental agencies set a global agenda such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

She said too often purely quantitative indicators were used to determine the level of internationalisation, such as number of co-publications, student study mobility numbers, and number of faculty with a PhD from abroad. In addition, there was a need to find a way to track curricular changes to an international dimension, impact on learning and research, diversity among international students, student satisfaction with the welcome, and changes in attitudes.

She added that the aims of internationalisation change over time and currently it was important that higher education institutions act as “safe spaces for all to question, and engage in critical analysis from diverse perspectives and to prepare graduates with the will and appreciation to do this throughout life”.

Internationalisation is “still about values that protect society from racism, nationalism, hate and xenophobia”, she argued.

Fredman said internationalisation had a particular value in a “world of protectionism”.

Knowledge exchange

Agneta Bladh, appointed by the Swedish government, spoke on her ongoing investigation into “increased internationalisation of higher education institutions”, saying that the two main reasons for increasing internationalisation were the importance of higher education institutions for international knowledge exchange and that internationalisation of higher education institutions is of great importance to other sectors of society.

Her mandate, Bladh said, is to propose new objectives and a new national strategy for internationalisation, both for higher education and research and to measures for more international perspectives in education. She is also to propose measures to increase Sweden’s attraction as a study destination and knowledge nation.

Bladh said that two reports will be published. The first will be made official on 31 January 2018 on goals, strategy and international perspectives for students and staff, and the second, on the increased attractiveness of Sweden as a study destination, on 31 October 2018.

“Less than 1% of the world’s mobile students are coming to Sweden,” Bladh said, “and 99% of research in the world takes place outside of Sweden.”

She presented the findings of a survey to which 39 out of 45 higher education institutions had responded. Ninety per cent of the responding higher education institutions said that a national strategy is needed, that the hindrances for internationalisation must be identified, that the role of different public authorities should be clarified and that policy areas should be better coordinated at national level.

The key countries for international collaboration to be singled out in an eventual national strategy most frequently mentioned were: China (18), India and the United States (15 each), Germany (12), Brazil (10), the United Kingdom (8), South Africa (7), Japan (6) and Indonesia and Iran – both mentioned by four institutions.

On the question of the main obstacles for outgoing student mobility, the survey identified lack of encouragement from the professors, little interest from the students and uncertainty surrounding credit recognition.

The draft strategy, currently being discussed with the reference expert group, is proposed for the 2020-30 period, with an evaluation after five years. The proposition will most likely not single out any specific prioritised countries. Previous national internationalisation strategies will no longer be in function.

“Internationalisation”, Bladh said, “is not a means in itself. It is an instrument for increased quality.”

Bladh said that the inquiry is working on a potential law proposal with the working title: “The universities’ combined international activities shall contribute to the enhanced quality of education and research and to a sustainable national and global development”, requiring a more active role for the higher education institutions than the current paragraph.