HE leaders need more training in internationalisation

Internationalisation as a concept and a strategic factor in higher education is a relatively recent phenomenon resulting from the fact that, from the 1980s onward, higher education at the systemic and institutional levels has had to evolve, and adapt to, an increasingly globalised knowledge society and economy.

The development of internationalisation, in terms of both concepts and initiatives, has occurred hand in hand with the rapid increase in the number of dedicated administrators and academics in charge of policy and implementation in the central administrations of institutions of higher education or in departments and faculties, in national and international agencies, in ministries of education and in the international education industry.

This has resulted in an increase in the number of ‘senior international officers’ – or SIOs, as they are called in the United States – with various degrees of responsibility and authority. It has put international education front and centre before senior management – rectors, presidents, vice-rectors and vice-presidents.

As internationalisation and global engagement around the world have become established, mainstream components of quality in higher education and the need to ensure the quality of the professional preparation of those in charge of institutions or agencies is becoming a crucial issue.

The professional development needs of those tasked with advancing the cause of internationalisation – locally and globally – require a concerted, synergetic approach.

As internationalisation policies at the institutional and national levels have evolved over the years and international offices have grown in size and complexity, the need for more senior-level professionals with a broader knowledge of international education has become more clear.

Already in 1982, the founders of the Association of International Education Administrators broke away from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, because they saw NAFSA as an organisation focusing on nuts-and-bolts issues rather than on leadership concerns. Eventually, NAFSA – and similar organisations in other parts of the world – targeted the need for professional development of SIOs more systematically.

Growing role of leaders in internationalisation

The relationship between higher education leadership and internationalisation is gradually becoming more diverse and complex.

There are two levels of leadership in internationalisation: SIOs, with more specialised roles; and senior management (rectors, presidents and vice-chancellors as well as non-specialised vice-presidents, vice-rectors, provosts and deputy vice-chancellors) for whom internationalisation is not a primary focus but who are responsible for, and have oversight of, the overall internationalisation policy and strategy of the institution.

While the role of the latter in shaping the internationalisation agenda of their institutions is steadily increasing and their institutional, national, regional and international influence is far greater than that of SIOs, they receive less attention from training providers and researchers. The limited information we currently have on their views on internationalisation comes from global surveys such as the one carried out by the International Association of Universities.

The following issues are relevant with respect to their specific role:
  • • Internationalisation is gaining increasing attention on the higher education agenda.

  • • The policy and practice of internationalisation is no longer marginal and ad hoc, but has moved to the centre of the agenda of higher education leaders.

  • • Internationalisation has impacted all domains of higher education policy – research, teaching and learning – and is part of universities’ mission to serve society.

  • • Internationalisation is no longer the exclusive domain of SIOs and their offices, but is increasingly part of the responsibilities of senior management.

  • • For senior management, internationalisation has become more than overseeing the SIO and his or her office and signing memoranda of understanding.

  • • The budget implications of internationalisation have become substantial, in terms of both expenses and income.

  • • For senior management, internationalisation is a key agenda issue at the sectoral and systemic levels, nationally, regionally and globally.
The implications of this increase in roles and responsibilities, and the broad and complex questions faced by leaders of higher education with respect to internationalisation, require far more attention.

For internationalisation strategies to improve in quality, comprehensiveness and sustainability, the debate must focus on ‘internationalisation beyond SIOs’ and on the professional development needs of higher education leaders and decision-makers.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. Email: This article is based on a paper for a symposium on ‘Leadership in Internationalisation of Higher Education’ at a farewell event of Dr Susana Menéndez, a member of the executive board of The Hague University of Applied Sciences.