How to build academics’ capacity for international HE

The new Australian Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 focuses on enhancing student experiences and the resilience of the international education sector.

Academics are at the heart of internationalising student experiences and designing and delivering international education. They are also beneficiaries of the institutional economic and academic gains that result from internationalisation.

Yet they have encountered significant challenges due to crises, the large-scale pivots to online and blended learning and the changes to the ways internationalisation has been implemented over the past two years.

To build a resilient and responsive international education sector, one of the critical tasks is to develop academics’ capacity in internationalisation, especially in response to crises, including war, geopolitical, health, financial and natural disaster-related crises. There is a pressing need to embed academic capacity building into any crisis response plan in international education.

Staff engagement and capacity building

Our recent research comparing engagement and capacity building for academic staff in internationalisation in Australia and Vietnam shows differences across the two contexts.

Australian academic staff have more opportunities, but are also expected to engage more in internationalisation, such as teaching a large number of international students and developing transnational research partnerships and education programmes.

This is on top of heightened expectations around research evaluation, accountability and a high student-academic ratio, leading to increased work demands on academics.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese academics encounter less pressure and fewer expectations to contribute to the institutional internationalisation agenda.

They seem to receive more support for capacity building from the government in terms of funding for formal qualifications and lifelong learning thanks to the government focus on enhancing the quality of Vietnamese higher education.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training initiated ‘Advanced Programmes’ which have a direct impact on enhancing knowledge and skills.

In both contexts, academics do not always fully understand what internationalisation means to their institution and do not entirely support their institution’s priorities with regard to internationalisation. These are among the key reasons for their lack of interest in engaging in internationalisation.

Both Australian and Vietnamese universities recognise the crucial role of academics in the implementation of internationalisation, but do not have sufficient capacity building mechanisms to enable academics to fully engage in internationalisation activities.

The research has found three common categories of motivation shared by academics in both Australian and Vietnamese universities when it comes to engaging in internationalisation: career development, knowledge and skills expansion, and impact creation.

Key challenges to capacity building

Despite the crucial role of academics in the implementation of internationalisation, their participation has not always been facilitated by national and institutional arrangements. There are some supportive structural and cultural conditions, yet at the same time numerous unfavourable factors impede their participation.

The business model largely underpinning international education in Australia is prone to financial and health crises, migration policy changes as well as disruptions in regional geopolitics.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese universities have found the pandemic to offer new opportunities to develop at-home internationalisation. This includes expanding more English-medium-instruction programmes to cater for the needs of local students.

Academics’ capabilities and agency are shaped by institutional arrangements in relation to the availability of internationalisation opportunities, workload, financial support, library resources, technical infrastructure and support, and professional staff development.

Specifically, Australian academics in the study were offered more internationalisation opportunities due to their institution’s larger capacity for internationalisation.

In contrast, the Vietnamese university’s smaller scale of internationalisation, combined with the absence of transparent communication channels and the exclusion of early career academics from internationalisation activities, limited academics’ access to internationalisation opportunities.

Workload was reported to be an obstacle for academics’ diverse engagement in internationalisation at both Australian and Vietnamese universities.

Because of their lower salary compared to their Australian counterparts, many Vietnamese academics need to take on extra jobs to make ends meet. This in turn lessens their motivation to engage in research activities, especially international collaboration that requires significant commitment.

Australian academics are provided with extensive library resources as well as technical infrastructure and support. By contrast these conditions are inadequate in most Vietnamese public universities, restricting academics’ access to the global sources of knowledge and digital technologies needed for transnational teaching and research collaboration.

Most formal professional development (PD) activities in both Australian and Vietnamese universities focus on compliance-based areas and generic knowledge and skills.

Insufficiency and a lack of diversity in relation to internationalisation-relevant PD initiatives in both contexts seem to be associated with the assumption that individual academics need to be agentic in developing needed knowledge and skills in internationalisation, something which cannot be taken for granted.

Recommendations on capacity building

We recommend a provisional list of actions and opportunities we think are necessary for academics to effectively participate in internationalisation:

• Involve academics in institutional conversations and policy-making processes in relation to internationalisation.

Academic staff are members of the institutional community and key actors in internationalisation. Therefore, their experiences on the ground in implementing internationalisation, their concerns and multidimensional opinions of internationalisation can contribute to developing a more balanced and sustainable agenda for institutional internationalisation, especially in response to crises.

• Explicitly acknowledge and promote the significant impacts of academics’ engagement on institutions, students and wider society.

It is crucial to encourage academic staff engagement in diverse dimensions of internationalisation to ensure the success of a comprehensive agenda. For this to happen, academics’ participation should be acknowledged, for example, via the identification of champions, to keep them motivated.

• Ensure equal access to internationalisation for all academics, with little or no exclusion of early career academics.

Including all academics in internationalisation can maximise human resources as well as increase academics’ satisfaction and commitment to ensure the sustainability of institutions’ internationalisation agenda. This is particularly crucial in the context of crises leading to social isolation under the working-from-home conditions during and post COVID-19.

• Develop an effective structure that promotes academics’ capabilities and agency.

This structure should cover various aspects, including incentives, resources, digital technologies, infrastructure, procedures, human support and especially professional development to ensure academics have more opportunities and abilities to achieve internationalisation goals.

Given the unprecedented difficulties and uncertainties caused by COVID-19 and any health, financial, natural disaster, geopolitical crisis or war, institutional support structures become even more crucial to assist academics to adapt to changing circumstances and the new demands of internationalisation.

• Align the institutional focus of internationalisation, institutional capacity building and academics’ skills needs to increase the responsiveness of professional development programmes towards internationalisation.

• Ensure that a crisis response mechanism and resources are in place, especially capacity building for academics to adapt their teaching and learning, navigate transnational education programmes and partnerships and provide relevant support to international and domestic students affected by crises.

It is crucial to provide crisis response PD for staff in relation to communicating with students affected by crises, guiding them to the relevant support resources, coordinating responses with different parts of the institution and being sensitive to the potential political conflicts among groups of students from different countries.

These recommendations may serve as useful parameters, guiding both institutions’ and academics’ actions in relation to capacity building for internationalisation. It is important that institutions and academics take joint action with a view to expanding these capabilities as their roles are equally important.

The international education landscape is rapidly changing, with the massive shift to digital and blended learning and the growing focus on internationalisation at home instead of internationalisation abroad as a result of COVID-19.

Professional development programmes should therefore be constantly updated to enable academics to adapt to the digitalisation of internationalisation, to virtual and blended internationalised programmes, internationalisation at home and alternative transnational education programmes and to respond to crises and war.

Diep Nguyen is a research fellow in Deakin University’s School of Education, Australia. She obtained her PhD degree from Deakin University in 2021. Her research focuses on academic staff capacity building, internationalisation of higher education, internationalisation of the curriculum, English-medium instruction, student mobility and graduate employability. Ly Tran is a professor in Deakin University’s School of Education, Australia. Her research focuses on international students, student mobility, international graduate employability, Australian students’ learning in the Indo-Pacific region and institutional responses in international education. Tran’s research and publications can be found in this profile.