Future directions: International education and the SDGs

International education encompasses learning with other students from around the world as part of an international experience. Even though COVID may have reduced the opportunities for this, it is a fundamental element of our global society and critical for the betterment of the world.

It is worth noting that even during the pandemic, some students took the opportunity to study with their chosen institution while being physically located somewhere else.

While students look for a meaningful in-country experience, educational institutions have to decide how to offer that opportunity. As discussed in the first three parts of this series, students (and the rest of the campus community) face a multifaceted decision when it comes to finding the ‘best’ structure for providing international programmes.

The institutions that we reviewed spanned the range of structures from the largest global universities to broad and small networks of institutions and combinations of these structures. As has always been the case, each institution pursues a unique strategy to address student demands as well as its broader institutional interests. The one obvious conclusion is that demand for international experiences is continuing to grow.

In looking at the different structures for offering an international experience, it is clear that there needs to be a framework for assessment of the education, the student experience and the effectiveness of the concept in delivering on the university mission.

Throughout this series, we have looked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a globally recognised benchmark for furthering equity, economic development and wellbeing, as a conceptual metric for these programmes. Of the 17 SDGs, we focused on the following:

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

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

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

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.

Widening access

Making higher education accessible to more students, especially from currently underserved areas, is embedded in the SDGs (specifically SDG 4) as one of the highest priorities.

Providing international and educational opportunities to individual students has a potentially high impact as those graduates bring expertise and networks back to their home community. Graduates who have had an international experience may be more inclined to become the teachers and leaders of the future, bringing a new perspective about what is possible.

Furthermore, international access to programmes fosters greater diversification across recruitment markets – attracting students and faculty from underserved communities. This provides an opportunity to support SDG 5 through expanding the educational business model to wider participation, especially for women and girls.

As global universities (multi-campus institutions) continue to expand and the number of campuses and network models continue to grow through new members, international education will become more accessible.

Global universities have the advantage of providing a coordinated experience across borders and the ability to structure an intentional international experience, possibly even choosing to require it for all students.

Global universities can use their centralised structure to provide depth to the international structure. Networks have the flexibility to expand their international reach by inviting new members and incorporating institutions beyond the reach of any single institution.

Networks generally have greater breadth in the options open to students and faculty, providing more choices of where to go, including geographic hot spots, and what type of learning to pursue. Both offer great opportunities for students.

The challenges of providing an international educational experience during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the digital divide and the gaping difference in access to technology.

Global universities may be better positioned to address the issue, if they so choose, because they can implement one plan for all campuses, taking advantage of scale.

A network of institutions is dependent on its individual members to address such needs to an acceptable level and make access compatible across campuses. To compensate for the variations across a network, institutions can choose to help their partners or find government or corporate sponsors.

Universities for the greater good

Historically, universities have focused on the purpose of education and research with the expectation that students were being prepared for leadership in their field. Now, there is an expectation that universities serve a range of constituents, from alumni to employers and from students to researchers – and all for the greater good through building knowledge, capacity and talent.

Considering SDGs 8 and 16, universities have a significant role to play in furthering economic growth for a peaceful and just society. While they educate future leaders, scientists and teachers, they have a role to play in the local community and on the world stage, especially when they have an international student body with access to international exchange.

Global universities and university networks both provide opportunities for expanding their social good compared to an individual campus institution.

There are opportunities to partner on any number of programmes that bring education to local communities or provide access to advice and counsel developed at the university in the service of the community.

Alumni can be a particularly powerful force for this type of community engagement: the more international alumni, the more communities they can support.

This serves a dual purpose of providing a meaningful engagement opportunity for alumni while working towards social good. There is a bonus too for the institution that provides the framework and opportunity in the form of reputation building.

Again, as for widening access to education, the network model tends to have an advantage when it comes to the breadth of opportunities it can offer while global universities may create a programme with depth that is reliant on its centralised leadership.

Combining the two models may be the best option, but this is not always possible and can cause internal issues when network members have different approaches to education and collaboration or where it creates an imbalance within the network.

Next steps in the context of the SDGs

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 individual institutions.

Ultimately, if we accept that the goal is 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.

Seth Kunin, deputy vice-chancellor (international) of Curtin University, expresses the need for this perspective when he says: “The question we used to ask was: ‘What is the implication of an international university?’ Today, we’ve shifted to: ‘What happens when we are a global university?’ – the global has no centre; any global university has several centres that we service and evaluate the implications of this work.”

Practical considerations

Fundamentally, the SDGs provide a useful framework to look at what can be turned into operational excellence and the ability to scale while maintaining quality and integrity of experience.

Institutions need to consider the practicalities of establishing a global campus or joining a network. Passive research will start the ball rolling, but seeking advice from colleagues with professional expertise and a willingness to share lessons learnt may help move things forward.

Consider some fundamental questions as they affect your institution:

• How are today’s student demographics and demands informing current practices and programmes? Are these lasting trends for the next decade?

• Would a new or different structure – physical and-or virtual – enhance your current programmes? Why or why not?

• Does the length of the international experience (for instance, a sponsored gap year, or a semester) create a new or different opportunity?

• Which existing networks provide prospective members with a chance to join on a provisional basis?

• When it comes to scaling, is part of the strategy to develop more institutional academic partners to offer more options for students and faculty? What are the potential trade-offs of quality and quantity?

Professor Leon Laulusa, executive vice-president and dean for academic affairs and international relations at ESCP Europe, exemplifies this aspirational approach when he says: “Our aim is to have a ‘European Roots, Global Impact’ approach.

“To do so, we continuously reinforce our global strategy, through the development of an ABCDE alliance (alliance in Art, Business, Culture, Diplomacy and Engineering) with some of the best academic institutions worldwide.”

Whether using the SDGs or other metrics of success, international education is an important force for societal success. There will be innovations, successes and even failures as the global market for education continues to evolve. The one thing we know is that international education is a positive force for change and for the greater good.

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. This is the fourth and final part of a series on international education models. The first part can be found here; the second on global universities can be found here; and the third on global networks is here.