Internationalisation hampered by ‘lack of investment’

Irish higher education institutions acknowledge that they are not internationalising to the fullest extent but are constrained by a lack of resources, according to a new study commissioned by the Higher Education Authority and funded by the Irish Research Council.

They are also hampered by a “lack of government investment in the promotion of Ireland” as a study destination.

Too many higher education institutions are focusing on “increasing numbers and revenue rather than using resources to meet the needs of international students”, the study said.

“The reliance on this approach was viewed as problematic and there was a general awareness that other factors should also inform approaches to internationalisation. These included increasing mobility in the student market, the promotion of outward mobility, securing international accreditation for programmes and government policy,” the study said.

While government strategy had shaped higher education institutions’ own internationalisation strategy, and the government had focused on the promotion of Ireland as a destination for international students, institutions believe Ireland remains “not well known” in key markets.

The study found that “strategic efforts were not coordinated sufficiently at national level to promote Ireland as a destination and there was room for much more cooperation between institutions with reference to international markets”.

The study indicated that the reliance on student fairs, where much of the resources were spent on this objective, should be reviewed.

International students who participated in the study were influenced by Ireland’s location in Europe, cheaper tuition fees and the ease of application through institutional websites, which gave Ireland advantages over other countries.

“More investment and resources are required to develop Ireland as an international destination and there is room for more cooperation between institutions at a national strategic level with reference to international markets.”

Extent of internationalisation

The study, The Internationalisation of Irish Higher Education, explores the extent to which Irish tertiary education institutions have become internationalised and the range of strategies and approaches developed to attract and retain international students.

The authors are Marie Clarke, dean of undergraduate studies at University College Dublin, who is an associate professor in the School of Education; Dr Linda Hui Yang, a researcher and intercultural trainer; and David Harmon, managing director of Insight Statistical Consulting.

Combining survey data with the views of directors of international offices, faculty and students, both international and Irish, this claims to be the first study to explore internationalisation in Irish higher education from a range of different perspectives, such as curriculum, teaching and provision of support for international students.

The study builds on international literature in the field and on previous studies conducted in New Zealand which addressed these issues.

In a foreword to the study, Dr Graham Love, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, said the report’s findings will be an invaluable resource as Ireland seeks to realise the ambitious goals set by the Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton in the government’s policy document, Irish Educated, Globally Connected: An international education strategy for Ireland 2016-2020.

That strategy aims to “support the development of global citizens through Ireland’s high quality international education system, by attracting talent from around the world to our education institutions, equipping Irish learners with the skills and experience they need to compete internationally, engaging in world-class researcher and international collaborations, and addressing global challenges”.

There has been an explicit policy commitment to facilitate and support the development of Ireland as an international education centre for the past two decades.

The publication of Investing in Global Relationships: Ireland’s international education strategy 2010-2015 set out the first coherent government strategy around internationalisation and was the first of its kind in Europe to set targets, the report says.

Most of the action focused on recruitment of international students and was deemed successful in exceeding the targets.

The most recent strategy, for 2016-20, mentioned above, is specifically linked to the National Skills Strategy 2025, a forthcoming Foreign Languages Strategy, the Trade, Tourism and Investment Strategy and labour market strategies, the study says.

“The aim of the strategy is to increase the numbers of international students and researchers coming to Irish higher education institutions, increase outward mobility for Irish students and academics/researchers and connect the benefits of internationalisation with enterprise in support of national economic ambitions,” the study says.

An academic mobility scheme launched in 2017, worth €500,000 (US$583,000), offers a new model for the government’s scholarship scheme and is seen as part of an evolving response to Ireland’s internationalisation agenda.

Despite operating through a period of prolonged cuts, Irish higher education institutions have performed well in internationalisation, increasing the recruitment of international students from a diverse range of countries, including China, India, Brazil, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Between 2000-01 and 2012-13, the number of international students attending universities in Ireland rose significantly, from 4,184 to 10,981. In 2016 a target was set of reaching 44,000 by the end of the 2019-20 academic year.

Increased outward mobility

The sector has also enjoyed success in outward mobility. In 2011-12 10% of NFQ level 8 graduates studied or undertook a placement abroad, a mobility rate in line with the European average, according to the Higher Education Authority. This has been achieved despite important challenges noted by institutions, including that students are reluctant to go abroad due to language issues and with socio-economic circumstances playing a role.

Internationalisation now forms a key component of institutional mission statements and international officers are well established on higher education campuses, the study notes.

More than a third of institutions surveyed deliver distance education courses to international students overseas and most of these engage in bilateral academic credit recognition, allowing students to undertake a substantial portion of their programmes offshore before enrolling in their institutions.

One weakness identified was that institutions mostly did not prioritise alumni chapters as part of their internationalisation efforts.

In general institutions believe internationalisation is not incentivised enough within organisations. By contrast more than half of those surveyed felt incentives or reward programmes would contribute to increasing the number of international students coming to the institution, for instance via scholarships and discounted schemes for students.

Most faculty also felt that there was a lack of recognition in the promotion process and “lack of respect” for the time involved in such activity.

The study identifies the internationalisation of the curriculum, teaching and learning as areas for further consideration.

While the majority of institutions acknowledged that internationalisation of the curriculum was important, there was a lack of understanding of what this meant in the context of learning outcomes, curricular provision and pedagogy, the study found.

“This is an area that requires investment by the government, through the provision of training and support by the National Forum for Teaching and Learning and the commitment of additional resources that will promote and incentivise teacher exchanges,” the study said.

“Within the institutions more consideration needs to be given to the process of curriculum design and development in general and with reference to internationalisation.”

Securing commitment to internationalisation from a wider range of faculty through the provision of seed funding for teaching and learning activities that will support internationalisation should also be considered, the study said.

Role of the student voice

Another interesting finding was the importance of the student voice in helping to shape the provision of support. The views of international and domestic Irish students in the study provide useful insights into issues of cultural differences and integration.

It emerged that Irish students who had gone abroad had gained “many insights into the experiences of international students on their campuses and actively supported international students as a result”.

The authors say this supports the contention that outward mobility is not just important for students themselves but also contributes hugely to internationalisation at home.

“Institutions should actively encourage student reflection about their experiences of the supports available, whether they are adequate to meet their needs. It is clear from this study that medical and counselling services require more support. The active involvement of international and domestic students in the organisation of activities is required to promote successful integration.”