Strategy advice aids international HE policy decisions

One of the core strategic priorities of the International Association of Universities (IAU) is to promote inclusive, fair and ethical internationalisation efforts in higher education. In 2010, IAU launched the Internationalization Strategies Advisory Service (ISAS) to provide expert advice.

The service assists higher education institutions to refine their internationalisation policies and procedures and supports future-oriented internationalisation efforts. In 2016, ISAS (2.0), broader in scope and offer than the original version, was launched. This allowed institutions to pursue internationalisation priorities that are bespoke to their institutions and context.

Based on the resources available to specific universities and the stage of internationalisation they fall into, institutions that work directly with ISAS (2.0) can choose to focus on one of four sub-strands: 1) Planning and strategy; 2) Assessing strategy and monitoring achievements; 3) Enhancing a specific area of internationalisation; or 4) Achieving comprehensive internationalisation.

The ISAS process begins with higher education institutions approaching IAU and expressing their interest in working together. The institution generates a self-assessment report. This is followed with a two- to three-day site visit by an international expert panel, which provides a written final review report, complete with policy and actionable recommendations. The entire process takes between eight to 12 months.

Since 2010, 17 institutions have used ISAS. Of these, 11 have used the original ISAS for defining their strategy, while the other six have used the different services of ISAS (2.0): two to assess their strategy, two for planning and three for support in achieving comprehensive internationalisation.

Of the 17, five are institutions from Africa (from Botswana, Ghana and Kenya), eight are from Asia (from Japan, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam), one is from Latin America (Peru) and four are from Europe (Italy, Lithuania, Russia and the United Kingdom). One Japanese institution used both the initial ISAS and, six years later, ISAS (2.0) to assess the progress it had made.

A study commissioned by IAU and undertaken as a field experience project by Sarah Grillo for the MA in International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States evaluated the impact of the ISAS process at each institution.

By collecting and examining the results, institutions will be able to benchmark their progress and ISAS will garner valuable feedback to inform and continue its advisory work. Twelve institutions from seven countries completed a survey and nine of them were also interviewed for further input. Five of the 12 institutions were from ISAS (2.0). The following provides an overview of the key findings.

Key findings

A majority, eight institutions, felt that the ISAS process was really helpful to advance internationalisation at their institution. Four indicated that it was somewhat helpful to advance internationalisation. No respondent indicated it had had a negligible impact.

A clear majority of institutions (11) noted progress in internationalisation since completion of their time with ISAS. ‘Significant progress’ was made at three of the universities and eight progressed ‘moderately’. Only one university indicated no progress but gave that ‘internationalisation efforts were already strong’ as a reason.

The top priority for institutions’ internationalisation goals today was given as the development of globally competent graduates. Also highly prioritised were: to ‘rise in international rankings and reputation and-or maintain competitiveness’ as well as to ‘improve the quality of teaching’.

A majority of the respondents (nine) also chose ‘enhance international cooperation and capacity building’ as a top goal. This is consistent with IAU’s 5th Global Survey findings, where it was chosen as the most important expected benefit of internationalisation at a global level.

The promotion of ‘bi- or multi-lateral international student exchanges’, ‘internationalisation of the curriculum/at home’ and ‘collaborative, international research’ were given as the most important internationalisation activities across all universities. These were followed closely by a focus on increasing ‘outgoing mobility for home students’.

Perhaps surprisingly, in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic context, only four institutions indicated that internationalisation via delivery of distance or online learning was a current goal.

A clear majority of the institutions (11) had an articulated commitment to internationalisation in their mission statement prior to the ISAS process. One of the biggest impacts the ISAS process had was to spur universities to develop or revise a specific internationalisation strategy. This was noted by seven universities.

All institutions entered the ISAS process with a designated office tasked with leading internationalisation efforts. Nearly all the institutions came into the ISAS process with an advisory committee tasked with internationalisation. Most of the institutions also entered ISAS with a leader tasked with internationalisation initiatives, while two indicated such a position was created at the suggestion of ISAS.

Funding of internationalisation

Dedicated funds for internationalisation initiatives were available in all institutions. Financial support is directed mainly towards three activities: ‘Professional development abroad’, ‘students studying abroad’ and ‘conducting research abroad’.

At the advice of ISAS, one institution launched scholarships for students studying abroad, one launched scholarships to attract international students and one provided on-campus training related to internationalisation.

After ISAS, five universities reported both an increase in their institutional budget for internationalisation and in external private funds (for instance, grants from foundations, corporations and other sources). Three reported no change to their internal budget while another three reported cuts in their budget.

Nearly all the institutions actively recruit international students and have specific enrolment targets for undergraduate and graduate students. Working with ISAS compelled three of the universities with enrolment targets to increase them.

Internationalisation at home

Global learning outcomes (GLOs) were clearly articulated at a majority of the universities prior to ISAS. At ISAS’ suggestion, three institutions implemented GLOs to aid internationalisation of the curriculum for students. Initiatives aimed at spurring internationalisation of the curriculum and co-curriculum were present, institution-wide, at a majority of institutions prior to ISAS, but two implemented this as a result of the ISAS process.

During interviews, several respondents remarked that working with ISAS led to them moving beyond primarily focusing on academic mobility. It allowed them to go more in-depth in terms of curriculum, practices and policies.

Another university that already had a robust international strategy felt working with the ISAS team allowed the university to identify “where [and how] to make changes” and to “institutionalise internationalisation”.

This was supported by other comments that the process aided in “developing a culture of internationalisation on the campus itself”, helped to “bring international culture into the system” and that the process “very much helped us to understand the current status of our university’s internationalisation”.

International partnerships

All the universities had current, international, collaborative partnership arrangements before working with ISAS. When asked to describe their institutions’ approach to collaborative partnerships, all of them reported moving to fewer, more select international partnerships. ISAS had a clear impact here as six of those universities reported streamlining their partnerships at ISAS’ suggestion.

Positive impact

There was a clear consensus during the interviews that working with ISAS had had an impact on their internationalisation efforts. Interviewees confidently and unanimously said they would recommend the service to other universities.

Suggestions for ways forward included finding ways to “maintain or sustain partnerships”, to “sponsor research” and to provide more collaboration between member institutions in developing and developed countries for “capacity building”. Other suggestions included the formation of an “ISAS alumni organisation” whereby institutions can “exchange our ideas and our experiences”.


The common consensus on further enhancement of the ISAS service was the need for active, follow-up support after the final report was delivered.

One university remarked that they would like to strengthen the connection between the ISAS board and the institution and “if any institution needs help as a result of their experiences, it [the ISAS board] will facilitate that”.

Some felt that regularly employing “tracking and box-checking” to see if institutions are implementing ISAS’ recommendations and that an “offer of support to the institution” would be helpful as institutions have their “own pressing needs and agendas”.

There was also a desire for particular support during the self-assessment stage.

A valuable instrument

As the key findings show, even in cases where internationalisation efforts are well-established, working with ISAS gives universities leverage to strategically advance those efforts. Internationalisation of higher education is a unique process and ISAS is sensitive to the fact that “there is no ‘one size fits all’ model or approach”. This is why every report and action plan is completely tailored to individual universities.

The ISAS process is a valuable instrument for universities wishing to develop, advance or review their internationalisation policies. Its process and recommendations have the potential to influence future institutional policy decisions. This study highlights the significant impact that ISAS has had on member institutions and shows its significance to future internationalisation efforts around the world.

Sarah Grillo is a student on the MA in International Higher Education course at Boston College, United States, and this summer will be an intern with the OECD Educational Policy Team. E-mail: Giorgio Marinoni is manager of higher education and internationalisation at the International Association of Universities. E-mail: Hans de Wit is distinguished fellow and professor emeritus, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. E-mail: The full report of the study is available here.