A good time to rethink global engagement strategies?

Ever since United Kingdom universities started to broaden their strategies for global engagement beyond the commercially driven international student recruitment strategies of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there have been questions about the gap between rhetoric and reality.

In response to a national survey I ran in 2005, several international directors suggested that, while broader internationalisation objectives were being articulated, underlying (income-led) priorities had not altered significantly.

When global higher education specialist Vincenzo Raimo reported on an investigation of UK universities’ international strategies in 2013, he wrote: “I’ve been surprised to find that some universities still believe that a one-dimensional plan for international student recruitment is an internationalisation strategy.”

So, what do UK university strategies look like in the early 2020s? Is there still a disconnect between rhetoric and reality? And has the pandemic provided institutions with the impetus to rethink their strategies for global engagement?

The current state of play

A review I carried out of 134 UK university strategic plans in late 2020 reveals that a global dimension is prominent in over three quarters of them, with 60% of the strategies including an explicit international or global theme.

Many of the more recently developed strategic plans relate this to issues such as sustainable development, the climate emergency, inclusion, social justice and civic or community engagement.

However, as reported in University World News earlier this year, there is a gulf between these stated priorities and the ways in which institutions choose to measure their international success. Many fall back on traditional metrics (with a profile-building emphasis), such as international student enrolments, research outputs and global rankings, even when the rhetoric in their strategies is steeped in lofty claims about their values, mission and impact.

Will the pandemic prompt a rethink?

COVID-19 has encouraged us to reconsider what matters most. Reprioritisation needs to extend to strategic thinking and planning within universities.

For Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, the pandemic clearly illustrates the need to “change the values that govern the way our higher education system functions… so as to put the common good ahead of all other considerations”.

In February 2021, Angelina Yuen-Tsang, former vice-president at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is reported to have urged universities “to move from intense and often toxic competition for reputation and ranking to cooperation for societal solidarity and global connectedness”.

There has also been much written in recent years about the imperative for ethical internationalisation.

Wei Liu, University of Alberta International, argues that the Western model of internationalisation is unsustainable and that those who work in international education “have an ethical obligation to reverse the adverse effects of economic globalisation and make the world a more equitable place for all”, embracing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

But will the forward-looking global discussions on the future shape of internationalisation that are taking place between scholars and practitioners around the world make their way into the next generation of UK institutional strategies? Or will we revert to what we know best?

Next generation of strategies

Interviews with 12 senior sector stakeholders in the UK, supplemented by insights from recent virtual conferences, webinars and publications, reveal a number of themes that universities are urged to consider as they develop or review their strategies for global engagement.

A recurring theme centred on the ‘why’ of internationalisation. What are the primary drivers, how will the institution’s approach support its core missions and how can the perspectives of those who challenge Western notions of internationalisation be considered?

The need to link the local and the global was also highlighted. In the context of post-pandemic recovery, what benefits can global engagement bring to local regional communities and how can civic engagement activities have a positive international impact?

The intersection of international education with sustainable development, climate impact, equality, diversity and inclusion, and social and racial justice, was seen as fertile ground for new initiatives.

UK strategies should also reflect the new global dynamics of a post-Brexit world where the centre of gravity is shifting from West to East, with Asia taking centre stage. It was seen as important to consider the ethical dimension of building international relationships and to enhance institutional capacity to understand partner country priorities and build intercultural rapport.

New partnership models were envisaged. These include truly flexible transnational education provision which draws more evenly on the respective expertise of both partners. Many institutions will also need to determine whether (and how) to engage with new types of private sector partners, such as agent aggregators and online programme management specialists.

Another prominent theme revolved around inclusive approaches to developing global perspectives (for students and staff) and enriching the student experience, often assisted by digital technologies. There was an emphasis on making intercultural and international experiences accessible, regardless of whether an individual can travel.

This requires a reconfiguration of curricula to integrate virtual exchange, collaborative online projects and issues prioritised by today’s students such as sustainability, social justice and global employability.

How will this be translated into action?

Changes in operating practice are expected, including more shared responsibility for internationalisation, cross-institutional collaboration and project-based initiatives. External-facing international office work may well be distributed across a network of in-country hubs, resulting in less long-haul travel (and lower carbon emissions).

Finally, universities are urged to be more imaginative when it comes to measuring international success: to rely less on traditional, input-based metrics, such as international student enrolments, and on ‘looking good’ in the rankings.

Alternative measures of progress can be tailored more closely to an institution’s mission and priorities, helping it to concentrate on self-improvement and carving out a distinctive role.

While it is important to recognise the havoc that the pandemic has wrought when it comes to university finances and the huge challenge of stabilising those finances, a long-term view on global engagement is needed.

If ever there was a time to grasp the nettle and rethink traditional UK approaches to internationalisation, to focus on making positive global contributions in a way that is fully aligned with institutional mission and to consider new ways of measuring impact, that time is now.

Dr Vicky Lewis is an independent consultant who specialises in working with higher education providers to develop or refine international strategies, infrastructure and implementation plans. Following a research project exploring the global dimension in current and future UK university strategies, she recently published a report for the higher education sector, UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink?