International HE and communication departments need to talk

Despite university international offices and press and communication departments facing similar challenges in raising the visibility of their institutions, day-to-day business gets in the way and prevents sharing of information and developing of a common strategy to benefit students, staff and the universities themselves.

That’s one of the key findings of a study involving international and communication managers at five higher education institutions, which was presented to this month’s 2019 annual conference of the European universities’ public relations and communication network, EUPRIO, held at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland.

The project was part-funded by the EUPRIO Mobility Programme, which encourages EUPRIO members to work together across borders to find new insights to tackling common marketing and communication issues facing higher education in Europe.

The programme was co-ordinated by Claudia Assmann, head of press and communications at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK Berlin) in Germany, and Kirsty L Barr, head of marketing and communications at the Glasgow School of Art in the United Kingdom.

It also involved representatives from communications and international departments at Haute École Léonard de Vinci, Brussels, Belgium; the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the UK and Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Lebanon.

They found that despite the impression given by international rankings and various challenges in student recruitment, higher education institutions were remarkably collaborative and realised that the quality and attractiveness of universities depends very much on their international network, partners and international strategy.

But this doesn’t always translate into close collaboration and sharing of information between the international offices and press-communication-marketing departments within higher education institutions, despite this being seen as crucial to the effective promotion of universities.

An ambition rarely achieved

Close cooperation between the international offices and the communication departments within higher education institutions is “an ambition often aspired to, yet rarely achieved”, said the report.

Too often “day-to-day business keeps us away from exchanging information, collaborating and developing a common strategy”, which both departments – and the university – would benefit from, according to the report’s findings.

“There’s often not enough time and resources to work as we might like to on a streamlined strategy that covers international and communication issues,” Assmann told University World News.

“This can lead to a loss of potential for the university as a whole, as well as clashing strategies or duplication of work. We have also looked for ways to make the international strategy of institutions more visible and easily accessible and helpful in many ways: for potential students, travelling staff or even for directors and presidents,” she added.

Mapping tools to the rescue

One concrete way of breaking down the barriers to more effective information flows that the EUPRIO Mobility Programme encourages is the creation of mapping tools to illustrate the university’s collaborative activities.

This has already been successfully trialled by the Glasgow School of Art, where Barr told University World News: “By using a strong, web-based tool, all members of the university as well as potential students and staff can access a visual map of the institution, its international networks, partners, global reach and impact on the city where it is based. It could be an incredibly useful tool.

“If many institutions collaborate and produce their own live maps, it could help solve their own international office-communication & marketing office issues. The individual maps could be linked together to create a network of collaborative live maps.”

Barr told University World News: “At a time when pressures on higher education institutions are intense for a variety of reasons, and the political landscape is challenging for higher education, research funding and the promotion of European mobility, this has the potential to become a truly democratic, free tool that demonstrates the reach and value of a global education, celebrates our connections and showcases and connects our internationalisation strategies.”

The EUPRIO team proposes to run their collaborative live maps using the Google MyMaps interface, which allows an institution to tailor existing information and images plus links for their own audiences.

Will Brexit dampen mobility?

One immediate challenge for European universities intending to strengthen staff and student mobility with the United Kingdom is Brexit.

Barr accepts that the UK’s departure from the European Union may lead to some changes, but she told University World News: “The situation will be different depending on whether the UK leaves the EU with a deal or not – and at this stage that is unclear.”

She added: “The tools that we have come up with as a part of this EUPRIO project are to facilitate greater dialogue and a more transparent ‘open border’ system of communication between institutions, their students and staff.

“Our hope is that greater collaboration might be facilitated remotely and that will inspire opportunities for future mobility. Mapping the extent and reach of institutional partnerships, projects, alumni and research will, we hope, result in a greater understanding and awareness of the potential benefits and impact of mobility and exchange globally, inspire future collaborations and lead to international partnerships becoming ever more fruitful.”

Need support and expertise to gain visibility

Maïté Abram, head of the international office at Haute École Léonard de Vinci in Brussels, who also joined the EUPRIO mobility project, said they couldn’t develop the tools and methods to gain visibility without the support and expertise of communication colleagues, but accepted that “the internal agenda is sometimes more important to them than the external one”.

She told University World News: “We need to engage together based on a common strategy and action plan and reconcile both agendas and define a common strategy based on our mutual expertise.”

She said a good example of this approach working was the university’s celebrations in the European Parliament’s House of European History to mark the 30th anniversary of the European Union’s Erasmus mobility programme.

“Erasmus is a big thing for European higher education international relations and by working hand in hand with the communications department, we made it an institutional celebration for all departments, teachers, administrative staff and students at the House of European History.

“From the beginning of the project, communications and international relations worked together on the concept and shared the same vision of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus project through European history,” said Abram.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities and specialist higher education media.