Guidelines for ‘responsible internationalisation’ set out

Swedish universities are facing an increasingly intensive debate about strategies, values and ethical considerations involved in international cooperation with universities in other countries.

To help them think these issues through, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), together with KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Karolinska Institute and Lund University, have produced a paper presenting guidelines on responsible internationalisation*.

The guidelines will be discussed at a seminar in Stockholm arranged by STINT in cooperation with the three universities on 23 March 2020, where State Secretary at the Ministry of Education and Research Malin Cederfeldt Östberg will be a keynote speaker and the Special Investigator for Internationalisation, Agneta Bladh, will be one of the panel speakers.

Tommy Shih, policy advisor at STINT and associate professor at Lund University and one of the paper’s three authors, told University World News that ‘responsible internationalisation’ of research was about the need to manage a broad portfolio of different conditions and goals in order to be able to work meaningfully across borders in the long term.

“The background is that the current research landscape is much more complex than it was just compared to a decade ago or even less. Today researchers from a larger number of countries are participating in producing high-quality research and the mobility of students and researchers is increasing.

“As internationalisation is supposed to be ubiquitous at all universities that seek to produce relevant research and scientists usually seek to collaborate with competent peers, a broader set of geographical interfaces are being formed in the science landscape.

“This development is both positive and necessary and means more resources, blending of ideas, broader dissemination of findings and increased possibilities to find solutions to global challenges,” he said.

“But we are also living in a world where politics, trade and security have in a more direct way entered into the realms of academic research. Current geopolitical tensions and voices for unilateralism have exacerbated this development.”

Universities accused of being naïve

He points to the fact that universities in Sweden, and in other parts of the world, have been criticised for being “too naïve” with respect to security risks, protection of intellectual property rights, ethical transgressions happening across geographical borders, protection of national infrastructure etc.

But this leads to a risk that university administrations and researchers become “too cautious, which in the end will negatively affect international research collaborations, even those that are productive and have low ‘risk’,” he says.

“We have already started to see clear tendencies that this is happening. This will not benefit research in the long term or make it more likely that we find solutions to global challenges.”

The idea behind responsible internationalisation is that university administrations and researchers should freely conduct the research that they find interesting and meaningful with the partners they find suitable but in a responsible fashion.

“To use a simple analogy, having a driver’s licence does not mean that someone can drive in any way he or she wants. Showing respect for rules, norms and having an understanding of the context is imperative.”

Guidelines for reflection

The document aims to provide some guidelines for reflection, and some analysis of international collaborations, to empower researchers.

“Sometimes the analysis will suggest that a collaboration should not be pursued, other times it might enable the development of a collaborative project as the assessment has made the researcher more understanding of the contextual factors that affect the research collaboration,” Shih says.

“We live in a time where international collaboration is becoming increasingly important. But the increased blurring of lines between economic matters, research, politics, security, etc, makes international collaboration more complicated. Rather than to start closing borders, the strategy must be to be better equipped to handle internationalisation.

“This entails managing both the opportunities as well as the risks of international collaboration. It is a responsibility both for the individual and the university to become more competent in making such analyses. The university should also be able to offer better support in processes related to responsible internationalisation.”

In the document, the authors – Shih, with Albin Gaunt, project manager at Karolinska Institute, and Stefan Ostlund, vice president and professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology – identify critical areas to ask questions around, such as the legal context; institutional autonomy; cultural, social and political context; and relationship building (who, what, why and how).

These are areas in which countries can differ quite significantly and which frequently raise questions impacting on international collaboration.

“Some topics, such as ethics dumping, conflicts with institutional autonomy and academic freedom, national security restrictions, personal risk and safety due to conflict, and differing limits on legality of research areas, pose considerable challenges and are difficult to handle,” Shih says.

“How to handle them is of course not an easy task. In the document we do not provide any prescriptions on how to handle the challenges. The document aims to provide guidelines for reflection so that these matters are explicitly discussed and noted. How to handle them should be the responsibility of, and at the discretion of, the researcher or the university.

“The responsible action, however, should be for the researcher to continuously upgrade himself or herself about the conditions that might adversely affect the research conducted, and act if needed. The responsibility for the university is to set up procedures to assist in making informed decisions, offer courses, and to improve the administration’s and researchers’ knowledge of the global research landscape etc.”

Importance of context

The authors suggest that thinking about responsible internationalisation is particularly important when dealing with partners in rapidly developing research systems.

Shih gave University World News two examples of why it is important to understand the context.

“First, many rapidly developing research systems we find today in countries that are categorised as authoritarian. This can pose a certain challenge with respect to academic freedom, a pillar in our academic system. While encroachment on academic freedom can happen anywhere, it is in general more likely to happen in countries that are ruled by authoritarian governments,” Shih says.

“It is necessary to act when such events occur (anywhere in the world). Many times, it can just be easier to end a project when academic freedom is infringed upon, but there might be repercussions for the partner in that country. Thus, to have some kind of informed process can be quite important.”

“Second, I think we also need to be aware that there is often a lag in legislation and lack of stringent implementation of rules (due to the immature system) in many countries that have rapidly developing research systems.

“This might provide, for some researchers, temptations to conduct certain research otherwise not possible in home countries with more strict regulation. This of course should be avoided as far as possible, but the lines are often not exactly clear. The discussion thus must be more transparent and be done in collegial networks, at the university level and between countries.”

Rector of Karlinska Institute Professor Ole Petter Ottersen told University World News it was important to recognise that the starting point for the report is that it should not be regulatory.

“Each university must decide on how to handle the issues raised. The purpose of the report is to compile questions that researchers and educational institutions might choose to pose – and should be encouraged to pose – before and during a collaboration,” he said.

Assessing risk

“We want to avoid a bureaucracy around these issues. But it is also important for researchers to feel that the institutions’ management and support functions constitute a solid and secure base when it comes to assessing risks in international collaborations,” Ottersen said.

“Personally I often get questions of this nature from researchers who are about to engage in an international collaboration and I see the value of putting these questions on a list.”

He said the report proposes that the next step should be to have a dialogue at the higher education institutions on how to address these issues.

“This presupposes that each educational institution takes a unified approach, accesses or develops a deeper competence to be able to make assessments of this kind.

“Not least, it is important that each of the higher education institutions and researchers clarifies for themselves and the partner what values one stands for. Thereafter, one can also engage in a dialogue with one’s partner to reach a common understanding of core values. The report clearly states that it is up to each educational institution to formulate their positions and to work on risk assessments in international collaborations,” he said.

Ottersen said the issues raised in the report are relevant for cooperation with a wide range of countries, including developing countries, and the report is about raising awareness of ethical difficulties that may arise in international cooperation.

“The countries where one should be especially vigilant are those where democracy, the rule of law or human rights have proven to be fragile,” he said. “We do not want to take the moral high ground, but it is important that we are clear about the values we stand for.”

* Shih, T, Gaunt, A and Östlund, S. (2020) Responsible internationalisation: Guidelines for reflection on international academic collaboration. Stockholm: STINT, 2020.