Using SDGs to gauge success of international education

Pre-pandemic international student mobility was on the rise. For instance, one indication, based on data from the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report and the United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, is that American colleges and universities sent tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students overseas – 347,099 in the 2018-19 academic year.

Another is that, according to reporting from the ICEF Monitor, Erasmus+ had 470,000 internationally mobile higher education students in 2018.

And, according to a recent University World News article, over 180,000 additional students from countries other than the US study at an ‘away’ campus for a portion of their university education through a global university.

An overriding objective for students who spend time abroad as part of a credit-bearing experience is a unique international and immersive experience from which they will benefit personally and professionally. Institutions must meet this demand to attract students and to strengthen their reputation and relationships abroad.

Post-pandemic is an opportune moment to look at what it means for universities to offer an offshore experience, both in terms of their own students’ ability to be more mobile and in terms of welcoming visiting students to participate for a semester or a year.

A particular area of interest is the difference between two different choices taken by several leading institutions when it comes to meeting the demands of today’s students: setting up a multi-campus system or affiliating with international networks.

Why have these two systems formed, how are they different and what are the relative advantages of each? The fundamental motivation for their development may be that students are increasingly entrepreneurial and self-directed, looking for stronger academic credentials built upon an international awareness and cross-cultural experience.

In considering these questions, there need to be shared metrics of success to compare and contrast the advantages of each as they directly benefit the student experience, provide a return to the institution and strengthen society.

Global universities and networks

Over the past decade, global universities have emerged as a significant factor in attracting internationally minded students. For some, what began as a branch or satellite campus model has matured into a global entity.

For a global university, each campus, whether offering a parallel academic experience or a locally specific programme, caters to the interests of enrolled students to study abroad as well as, increasingly, serves the interests and needs of local students in those campus locations, as Nic Mitchell reminds us.

Students – and parents – may prefer the ease of the single relationship provided by a traditional college that offers a global campus concept like Temple University’s where a student can choose among 10 locations, whether in their original home state of Pennsylvania, Tokyo or Rome for any given semester.

The other primary development of a global concept is the emergence of university networks that build on the strengths of multiple independent institutions. While a few institutions have partnered as networks for decades, these have often been informal. Today, institutions better understand the benefit of collaboration to leverage resources and provide a more coordinated experience for visiting students through formal agreements and complementary programmes.

Networks provide benefits at all levels, as highlighted by the Danube Rectors’ Conference where participants gain “direct insight in national issues through its members”.

How do we know what is working and whether one model is better than the other? Clearly, both types of programmes aim to serve their students, the institutions and the greater good.

Using SDGs to gauge success

We can look to four of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for motivation and guidance to determine some indicators of success based on anticipated impacts of international education. Specifically:

SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Educational experience abroad has historically been available only to the most privileged students with occasional opportunities for exceptional merit. With the crucial importance of cross-cultural understanding, international education is more of a necessity that should be accessible to more of the worldwide population.

Both global universities and university networks provide:

• Opportunity for different types of learning experiences.

• Expanded educational offerings, including through online options.

• Co-curricular educational opportunities.

• Lifelong learning for alumni, both to those who went abroad and for the broader community.

SDG 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Given the challenges for women and girls to access education in various parts of the world, global universities and networks provide alternative opportunities for local women to obtain an international credential and gain valuable personal and professional networks. Some examples include:

• Access to international curricula through global institutional structures.

• Promotion and encouragement of participation by women in STEM subjects and career fields.

• Leadership development programming.

SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Raising educational levels and knowledge base has been a significant economic contributor around the world. The pandemic ushers in a renewed focus on building capacity locally, both to serve the needs of the community and the interests of young people. Global educational institutions respond to these needs by providing:

• Environments supportive of innovation.

• Career opportunities.

• Professional networking.

• Cross-border collaborative research.

SDG 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

The 21st century has shown the great need for cross-cultural understanding and the development of leadership for nations that live in peace. Educational institutions that have a global presence cultivate an environment in which:

• Students gain a deeper cross-cultural understanding.

• The institution serves as a community convener.

• Faculty are able to establish stronger research partnerships.

These points relating to the four SDGs represent some of the most closely aligned benefits that should be measured to evaluate the impacts and success of these models and of the individual institutions.

Ultimately, if we accept that the goals of international mobility systems are to build robust educational institutions that look beyond the boundaries of a single campus and even a single country, we should ensure that the resources being expended are providing robust and effective outcomes.

Gretchen Dobson and Kathy Edersheim are co-authors of this four-part series on international educational models. Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with 28 years’ experience across six continents. Kathy Edersheim is president of Impactrics, an organisation of experts in international alumni relations, community development and leadership training that provides consulting to universities and membership organisations. In the following three articles, they will consider the relative merits of the structures outlined above on the student experience and the ability to meet institutional goals.