Internationalisation guidelines: Bonus or burden for HE?
The Directorate of Higher Education and Skills and the Norwegian Research Council delivered its report on regulations and tools for responsible international cooperation to the Ministry of Higher Education and Research on 14 August.
“International higher education and research cooperation have over recent years become more demanding and the sector is facing the dilemma every day between openness and security, and they have been asking for more information and guidelines from us,” said Minister of Research and Higher Education Sandra Borch at the launch of the guidelines held at the Arctic University of the North at the start of the university year.
Ironically, the Arctic University is where a lecturer suspected of being a Russian spy was arrested by Norway’s police security agency PST in October last year, as reported by University World News.
The North “is special”, Borch told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “We are situated in the middle between the East and the West where we have great tensions now. The University of the Arctic is an important university, also in relation to Northern area politics.”
Director General of the Directorate for Higher Education and Skills Sveinung Skule was reported by NRK as saying collaboration across borders was needed to strengthen the quality of higher education. However it was also necessary to “secure safe and predictable collaboration and these regulations will contribute to this”, he said.
“Our main message is clear: plan effectively and take precautions when entering such collaborations. But do not let the insecurities overshadow the positive advantages of international collaboration,” he said.
A sense of the challenges presented by international research collaboration has been increasing over time. Norwegian Research Council CEO Mari Sundli Tveit said international research collaboration with countries outside Europe has been “more challenging over the last years” and said the new guidelines give “concrete advice” about what higher education and research institutions have to be aware of when entering into international research collaborations.
The guidelines build on a white paper drafted in 2022-23. “National control and digital resistance to protect national interests: as open as possible, as safe as needed,” it states, noting a complex threat scenario amid increased rivalry between global superpowers.
Advice for universities
Although the main target for the guidelines are universities, university colleges and other institutions pursuing international collaboration within research, innovation and higher education, many of the recommendations will also be relevant for hospitals and Norwegian companies, notably the chapters on export control, partnership within research and agreements on research and higher education.
In terms of the guidelines, the leadership and administrators at higher education institutions are advised to conduct a “systematic evaluation of risk and vulnerability to identify concrete security challenges and pressure against academic freedom and research ethics” at their institution.
They are also asked to “differentiate access to important information and infrastructure” and to ensure there are procedures in place to vet individuals for positions with high security risks. Another suggestion is that institutions “make an inventory of international cooperation agreements and research collaboration” and identify collaboration with countries where academic freedom is under threat and countries where sanctions have been imposed.
Institutions are also asked to identify collaboration that could be regulated by Norway’s export control regulations in terms of which a range of products, technology and services may not be exported without an export licence from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is suggested that academic staff “get knowledge on political context, partner institutions and academic areas when entering into international collaboration with regard to security issues, legislation and possible challenges for academic values and ethics”.
Furthermore, institutions should “sort out expectations with partners with regard to academic freedom and research ethics early in the planning process and try to organise equal partnerships with regard to funding and interests”.
Institutions should also “undertake risk evaluations with regard to academic freedom, research ethics and export control based on information on country contexts, and plan eventual counter measures” and, when confronting difficult decisions, seek advice from support functions at the institution or relevant authorities.
Concerned with how the vetting process happens on the ground at universities, University World News asked Joachim Gümüs Kallevig, director of the Faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Stavanger, whether staff required extra training in order to implement the security guidelines.
“At the Faculty of Science and Technology we have over the years had many international students, like in 2022 where we had 353 active non-European students.
“The faculty has over time gained experience and developed competence related to security routines and there is in addition an evaluation done by the Directorate of Immigration before a visa is granted,” he said.
“Because of students’ access to infrastructure and technological advanced fields the faculty has stronger security regulations than the other faculties at the university. There are access regulations both to specific areas, of the use of licensed equipment and access to certain PCs and several staff members are working for instance on access control.
“Our students get close supervision both by academic staff and student assistants and technical staff. In addition, our leadership group is in close contact with the national security authorities during the year and there is a continuous update on security measures by our staff.
“There are, accordingly, broad-based security measures in place when we are admitting students,” Kallevig said.
A starting point
Tommy Shih, associate professor at Lund University, and one of the authors of the 2019 Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) report on responsible internationalisation, together with KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Karolinska Institute and Lund University, said it was “positive” that the Norwegian government has asked for and received guidelines for responsible international collaboration, but they represented a starting point only.
“National guidelines codify expectations for research institutions and researchers, which can be helpful for the continued work on promoting international collaboration. However, it is important to remember that guidelines such as the ones developed are only a starting point for more structured work on how international collaborations could be managed,” he told University World News.
“There are still many questions that need to be answered, such as, for example, what the sound delegation of responsibilities is, where and how universities draw boundaries, and how to promote a culture of responsibility reaching beyond requirements. Such work is very difficult to address in guidelines but can be informed by them.”
Dr Agneta Bladh, former chairperson of the Swedish Research Council, who chaired the internationalisation investigation in Sweden in 2018-19 said the guidelines in her neighbouring country were the product of concerns from many governments about security issues, especially where the research collaboration, including postgraduate education, concerns fields important to national security.
She said the STINT report, which was produced before either the media or national governments were taking up the issue, was motivated by a lack of awareness among scholars of “certain aspects of international collaboration, not least from ethical perspectives”.
“The STINT report thus put responsible internationalisation on the agenda at an early stage. The report emphasised the responsibility of scholars themselves, as well as the leadership of their institutions without giving such specific guidelines as you find in the Norwegian report. However, the Swedish government has also recently given some authorities a mandate to propose guidelines for responsible internationalisation. It is open how detailed those coming guidelines will be,” she said.
Bladh said it was important for a free academy to find “suitable and enriching international collaborations without pointers from authorities”, but a “responsible mindset” was required.
A delicate issue
“As advanced research is carried out in both democratic and authoritarian countries, it is a delicate issue to find responsible ways for collaboration.
“This is necessary as international collaboration is very important for a small country both because of quality reasons but also as the majority of all research results are from abroad. There is a risk that research will be less productive and less interesting if international collaboration decreases.
“This is not good for the quality of the research and is neither good for the business sector, in Sweden with many multinational firms. And thereby not good for the country either,” she said.
Professor Erik Renström, vice-chancellor of Lund University and vice-chair of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) internationalisation expert group, said: “We live in an increasingly complex and difficult-to-navigate world where academic collaborations must be evaluated so that they live up to high demands on research ethics, academic freedom, but also information security.
“The higher education institutions in Sweden took notice of this change and took action about five years ago and we have since explored these issues within and between the higher education institutions, but also with the Inspectorate of Strategic Products.”
He referred to the STINT report as “one result” of an increased awareness of the need for responsible internationalisation.
“After this report, the work has continued and this year SUHF and my own university published new and in-depth guidelines. We believe that these constitute as good a basis as is possible today for responsible assessment of scientific collaborations and student exchanges,” he said.
He said the latest Swedish guidelines were “generally as ambitious as those formulated in Norway, but some of the guidelines in the Norwegian example would in Sweden also require efforts by government authorities and good cooperation between them and the higher education institutions.
“Such work has been initiated by the Swedish government, which has tasked the Swedish Council for Higher Education with investigating Sweden's international academic collaborations and formulating recommendations.”
Renström said there were “obvious risks” associated with the government, or authorities that are not fully familiar with the conditions of the international academy, designing guidelines for universities’ international collaborations.
“Even if the intentions are good, a clumsily designed regulatory framework can seriously damage our international collaborations, such that Swedish research and innovation is affected in a negative direction,” he said.
However, he said the dialogue between SUHF and the investigating authority was currently characterised by “openness and sensitivity – so I allow myself to have high hopes for a good outcome of the investigation”.
Akiyoshi Yonezawa, vice-director of the International Strategy Office at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, who has worked on the need to balance academic freedom and open science with protecting information and data that could affect national security, said: “In principle, academic freedom must be fully guaranteed under the full autonomy of universities.”
He said many countries, including Japan, support this principle, while the idea of the relationship with society, particularly a nation state, depends on the “historical and cultural context” of a country.
“Contemporary universities are no longer the isolated ivory tower, but an organisation based on deep engagement with national and international society and economy. Their role in science, technology and innovation is the core resource for a national economy and security,” he said.
A commitment to freedom
“What is important in developing such a guideline is the active commitment of universities and academics to protect the free and autonomous intellectual activities of their community members.”
Yonezawa said a clear statement of purpose and rules and transparency in procedures were essential for university and academic community members to know what they can (and should not) do.
“We need international mobility and collaboration of university academics for the benefit of all of humankind. The establishment of guidelines is a tool for mutual communication, not for external control of academic freedom and university autonomy.”
Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now acting secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told University World News that “alarm bells should ring loud and clear whenever political decision makers or expert authorities come up with new ‘guidelines’ for universities”.
He said history has shown that universities serve society best when allowed to carry out their missions as autonomous organisations. “It is a fine line between ‘guidelines’ and overt political interference,” he said.
Ottersen said particular care should be exerted when working out guidelines for international collaborations, which are the “very core of the academic mission”.
“The intention might be the very best. But imposing guidelines to ‘provide the safeguarding of both academic values and national interests’ may easily end up in undermining both.”
He said responsible internationalisation relied on “proactivity, competence, and a moral compass at the level of universities and the individual researchers”.
“Risks must be competently evaluated up front when planning for a new collaboration, and the moral compass must be in place when decisions are made. The universities should see it as their own responsibility to develop competence for responsible internationalisation.
“In doing so, resources, information, and meeting arenas provided by external actors should be appreciated and welcomed. But imposing restrictive guidelines or political intrusions – however well-intentioned – should be seen as antithetic to the universities’ mission,” he said.
A freezing effect?
Asked about the possible freezing effect of the guidelines on collaboration, Hans de Wit professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States, and senior fellow of the International Association of Universities said the Norwegian policy was similar to those of other countries: trying to find a balance between national knowledge security and keeping channels open.
“There is certainly an inclination by governments and institutions to freeze national and institutional relations with certain countries and their institutions. Russia and its universities are a clear case,” he said.
In an article on China-US relations to be published in University World News in early September, De Wit and Phil Altbach also highlight a more recent ‘kerfuffle’: the decision by Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg to suspend collaboration with the China Scholarship Council (CSC).
According to De Wit and Altbach the German university is the first German institution to suspend collaboration with the CSC, a key funding scheme by the Chinese government for Chinese students and researchers.
“Some universities in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States have already ended CSC collaboration, while tensions have also accelerated between Chinese and Australian universities and government agencies,” they write.
De Wit told University World News this week that “each situation is different, and institutions and their centres and faculty have to judge based on facts that break our values and should not act before they have received evidence of such a break”.
New president of the European Students’ Union (ESU) Horia Onita said: “In a more fragmented and divisive world, ESU believes that higher education institutions and research cooperation have a role to play in building bridges rather than enhancing divisions. This being said, while international cooperation is a cornerstone to achieve the missions of higher education, the role of international cooperation in science and knowledge diplomacy has gained governmental traction.
“Given the complexity of the issue and developments of recent years, higher education institutions are turning more and more towards public authorities for guidance on how to navigate potential risks. While responsibility should lie first and foremost with institutions themselves to take necessary protective measures, these forms of guidance can be welcomed as long as they do not infringe on institutional autonomy and academic freedom but offer recommendations for balanced intervention in protecting sensitive domains and free cooperation without undue influences.”
Onita said any measures should “not create discrimination for international students” and said higher education institutions should take “sensible approaches” to promote student mobility.
“Additionally, it should not be forgotten that risks associated with international cooperation are neither new nor do they encompass only certain institutions/countries: the approach to responsibility in international cooperation should thus be proportionate and not lead to an overly fearful approach.”
An ongoing debate
The debate on responsible internationalisation in Norway is to continue later this year at a conference of the Nordic Association of University Administrators which has a membership base of 65 universities and university colleges.
According to the invitation to the conference, due to be held in Finland from 27-29 November: “international academic cooperation has become increasingly dependent on political, economic, and social contexts.
“This reinforces concerns for academic cooperation with higher education institutions as well as in talent recruitment and admissions. How are we faring in the Nordic universities in terms of academic freedom, corruption, legislation, and political systems combined with digital development?”