Networks can improve international student experience

It has long been recognised that students have an interest in international travel, exchange programmes and other cross-cultural programmes and engagement.

The most straightforward opportunity used to be for an institution to partner with an existing institution based at a destination of interest to students. From those early days we have witnessed the emergence and rapid growth of networks of universities aiming to provide access for international students.

An additional benefit of the formation of these networks has been the opportunity for faculty to form international research collaborations and administer joint programmes more sustainably.

Our review of these international education networks includes some established by formal agreements with structures ranging from a charter to a secretariat and some with more casual arrangements.

Looking primarily at undergraduate programme delivery and services, we identified 23 networks representing hundreds of institutions across six continents.

An international education network structure is a member-based entity with a shared vision for advancing internationalisation by way of academic exchange, research collaboration, professional development and socially based causes.

There are common characteristics of networks, including the independent management of each member institution, a cross-recognition of credits for students and a stated shared purpose that drives the continuation of the collaboration.

It is worth noting that global universities with multiple campuses, as discussed in our second article in this series, are often members of a network as well, bringing greater depth and breadth to the opportunities for students.

The Talloires Network of Engaged Universities, administered by a secretariat based at Tufts University in the United States, demonstrates the appeal of the model with its 417 institutions that provide a wide range of student opportunities beyond the capacity of a single institution.

As they describe it: “Over time, we have expanded to reach students in 79 countries around the world. The reach of our network allows students from very different walks of life to meet and learn from one another.”

What’s working today?

The power of the network structure is built on advantages that range from financial to reputational, not to mention the critical need to respond to the larger societal responsibilities facing educational institutions today.

There are administrative benefits for members as each bears a modest cost to engage and in return the network opens up vast opportunities for their students, faculty and staff.

Global networks introduce lesser-known institutions to prospective students and help build their brand while showcasing their participation alongside household names.

Helen Keller’s famous words, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”, come to mind today as teams of institutions embrace virtual exchange as the medium to widen opportunities for scholastic and professional networking, especially for those newcomers to cross-border collaboration.

While an educational institution must focus on the transfer of knowledge from academics to students, the past decade has brought a realisation that developing a personal network is crucial for lifelong success.

Historically, university students often entered tertiary education with a network that was expanded – though still limited – to those at the same institution. Now, students have the opportunity to build an international network through their educational experience.

As the International University Network of the Phoenicians’ Route – Cultural Route of the Council of Europe (IUN) points out: “Networking is one of the strengths, of course. International cooperation gives us the opportunity to share ideas, visions, projects, methodologies and technical know-how.”

Having a network to access provides a sense of global citizenry through the opportunity to travel and a shared classroom and campus experience with students from around the world.

For many students attending a university near home, the network also provides access to travel to an accredited institution that might otherwise have been inaccessible to them for economic or other reasons, as the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities emphasises.

There are advantages to the participating institutions of a network that go beyond the student experience as well. The network can be a conduit for academics and researchers to collaborate across institutions.

For the administration, there is the opportunity to share best practice with colleagues while maintaining independence.

Each institution can make decisions on vision, management, philosophy and educational delivery based on its culture and needs so long as it stays within the guidelines of the network.

The structured agreement system of a network allows for the relatively easy inclusion of additional institutions or, if there is an issue, an institution can leave the network.

By maintaining their independence, each member institution maintains its own local, culturally relevant identity as well. To succeed and offer an integrated programme, the network has to recognise and adapt to the cultural differences that are inherent in a multinational collaboration.

Students are beneficiaries of this ‘think global, act local’ approach through being able to access a local experience when visiting a member institution. This can be even more powerful when it comes to extracurricular activities that reflect local culture and for programmes that are integrated in the community.

The multinational outlook provides insight at all levels of the institution. Still, because each student identifies with the ‘home’ university, each institution can continue to build its own reputation, relationships and foster alumni affinity.


Managing a network presents a unique set of challenges because centralised control is relatively weak. Each entity participates at the will of its administration. Adhering to network protocols can be interpreted in different ways and might be more challenging for some participants than others.

While institutions want to gain a breadth of programming and student opportunities through the network, having more members means less control and more concerns about consistency. There needs to be coordination to define the programme and help institutions stay on mission.

To address this need, the Danube Rectors’ Conference, for instance, has a permanent secretariat providing for continuity, as well as a presidency. Maintaining the secretariat and convening the membership comes with costs that might be cumbersome for some institutions.

Many institutions want to attract students based on the opportunity to have an international experience. When that opportunity is driven by a network structure, there is a question as to who is responsible for building awareness of the network and promoting it to applicants.

While each member entity is motivated to include information on their website and integrate the concept into their materials, there needs to be consistency in the presentation of it across the network.

Furthermore, the network is likely to be more successful if there is some coordinated promotion of it. Many networks exist but are not well known, which is both an opportunity and a challenge for them in the next few years.

For the student visiting a partner institution, the experience should be well coordinated and carefully managed as most networks do not deal with academic integration.

Because the destination campus is a different institution without shared departments, students may be challenged to continue their field of study during the away term, especially in science-related subjects.

Socially, visiting students may feel isolated without accessible support structures for a short-term visitor. Without sufficient guidance such as an advisor or student host, a visiting student might find it challenging to acclimatise to the foreign campus, much less the foreign country.

The importance of building affinity and cultivating a shared identity among programme alumni can be challenging in a network situation. The attachment and identification with an institution visited for a semester or, at most, a year, is likely to be tenuous, especially compared to the loyalty to the primary institution of a student.

Even when it is a formal network and students participate in a programme as part of a cohort that has some shared programming, affinity develops for the other participants and the programme rather than for the network or even the host institution.

Networks would be well served to consider how to cultivate a sense of identity so that they can develop a robust alumni community.

One of the most challenging aspects of a university network is dealing with an ever-changing diplomatic situation. Like any other institution or organisation with a history of physical programme delivery, networks may need to reconsider their model due to changes in border controls and visa programmes.

In the network framework, students are often reliant on the in-country institution, with which they have less of a relationship, for any necessary visas. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a situation which was already one of the primary hurdles for short-term programmes.

Measures of success

As in part two of our series, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a framework for comparing the success of international networks in achieving their objectives. The network model builds scale and invites greater participation across member institutions that value the ability to collaborate on a global scale, an opportunity not possible for institutions acting alone.

Again, SDGs 4, 5, 8 and 16 are advanced by international educational opportunities supported by international networks, as mentioned in part one of our series. Here are two examples of how the network model addresses SDG 5 and 16.

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

A network of institutions can support gender equality both by bringing role models to local communities and providing opportunities for women to visit a foreign campus and participate in activities that would not be available at their home institution.

A perfect example of how global networks provide opportunities for young leaders to share best practice and promote gender equity is the Talloires Network Leaders Conference, which was held from 30 September to 3 October 2021.

As described in a recent University World News article, a core group of students from Ireland, Kenya, Sudan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan met virtually over the last year to plan the online gathering. They wanted to address advancements over the past decade and others that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.

At the conference students shared their own personal experiences, case studies and participated in critical analysis as they compared issues of gender equity among their own communities.

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.

It is safe to say that one strength of international higher education lies in its nature to foster open, safe and peaceful environments which embrace academic freedom and inquiry. So too, international education networks are built upon these principles of inclusiveness and justice.

Member institutions reap the benefits of their collective by tapping into the diversity of specialties and joining each other in collaborative projects.

As leaders within the IUN state: “Each partner can find in the general programme the references to its specific sector of intervention, connect with other universities and departments operating in the same fields, develop new proposals updated to the new challenges of contemporary society.”

Network effectiveness starts with trust. Members share a common philosophical bond as it relates to the shared mission of their network and the impact they strive for in measuring the outcomes of their activities.

As IUN reaffirms: “By working together, we can learn to dialogue and find the best solutions together, to discover that we are not so different, but rather that we have common origins.”

The Yale-NUS institution that existed for a decade in Singapore was an example of a collaborative effort that embraced the principles of SDG 16 by intentionally being inclusive of all nationalities with a focus on social justice and providing open access to students, faculty and partners.

With the decision by the National University of Singapore (NUS) to dissolve the institution and the partnership, it may be a challenge for the New College at NUS to address the interests of an international student body and live up to the legacy of the visionary concept of Yale-NUS.

The Talloires Network of Engaged Universities reminds us that “universities have a responsibility to develop the next generation of active citizens with the capacity to address the complex challenges around the world”.

Our concluding article will take a look at the opportunities and challenges for global universities and international networks on a comparative basis as well as at a collective level.

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. This is the third of a four-part series on international educational models. The first part on how the Sustainable Development Goals can be used to gauge the success of international higher education can be found here and the second on global universities can be found here.