Creating global mindsets with ‘internationalisation at home’

While nearly 680,000 international students were studying at universities in the United Kingdom at the last count, only a small minority of British students go abroad for their higher education, including on student exchanges, and for shorter periods.

The length of study abroad periods has shortened for the projected 28,800 higher education placements earmarked through the UK’s homegrown Turing Scheme for this academic year.

Turing replaced UK participation in the latest round of the European Union’s Erasmus+ mobility exchange programme following the Brexit withdrawal agreement and only funds outbound mobility from the UK.

But that doesn’t mean UK universities are giving up on encouraging global mindsets in their students, with attention now turning towards internationalisation at home (IaH), according to a report from the independent International Higher Education Commission (IHEC) set up by former minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation Chris Skidmore.

Skidmore was the minister for higher education in 2019 when a previous Conservative administration launched the UK’s strategy, with the goal of increasing the value of education exports to £35 billion (US$43 billion) and growing overseas student numbers to over 600,000 by 2030 – a figure surpassed nearly a decade ahead of schedule.

The new report, titled Is the UK Developing Global Mindsets? The challenges and opportunities for Internationalisation at Home in driving global engagement, is part of an attempt by the IHEC to help shape a new international education strategy for the UK.

Overlooked and underfunded

One of the co-authors, Dr Anthony Manning, told University World News: “There are increasing synergies and overlaps between internationalisation at home and mobility activities, but IaH is currently overlooked and underfunded.

“This represents a wasted opportunity to harness the international potential of our existing academic communities,” he said.

Manning, who is director and dean for global and lifelong learning at the University of Kent, said: “Not everyone has the funding or confidence to allow them to benefit from the kinds of profound developmental intercultural experiences brought about through study or work abroad.

“But, as international educators, we have a duty to help students to widen engagement with international perspectives and cultures in a range of inclusive, incremental and accessible ways and that’s why IaH is so important.

“As authors of this report, we contend that non-mobile internationalisation activities represent an underexploited source of value which offers the potential to introduce different student and staff perspectives from around the world into the global learning and teaching experience.”

The Global Mindsets report argues that IaH not only reaches more students than physical study abroad activities, but it also reduces the carbon footprint of international education.

“Some even call for IaH to become the norm and for physical mobility activities to be actively reduced in favour of non-physical mobility, supported through online technology, collectively known as collaborative online international learning (COIL),” states the report.

While not subscribing to a polarised view, the report calls for “a diverse matrix of internationalisation activities” and argues that “a truly inclusive approach to internationalisation” should include IaH and varied durations of mobility as part of “a broader inclusive cultural journey for both students and staff”.

Manning wants institutions to “invest in building capacity and capability to deliver their laH ambitions” and suggests “integrating funding of COIL initiatives into the UK’s Turing scheme to more easily support virtual mobility as well as physical mobility”.

Measuring and monitoring

Another of the report’s co-authors, Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, told University World News that one reason IaH has been overlooked in the past is because non-mobile internationalisation activities are not included in the world university rankings, which focus instead on things like the number of foreign students, overseas members of academic staff and international collaborative research projects.

Ilieva said a fresh approach to quantifying internationalisation activities is needed and calls on institutions to routinely measure and monitor IaH activities, just as they do physical study abroad mobility, and ensure they are developing global mindsets in both domestic and overseas students through IaH.

The first priority should be establishing baselines for ongoing measurement and monitoring of progress against clear objectives, said Ilieva, citing the 2019 International Higher Education Strategy as a good example of where a clear ambition was set, allowing the consequences of policy changes to be assessed in the context of a stated goal.

“Our reports identifies quantitative indicators and gives examples of how higher education institutions can evaluate and track their IaH efforts,” she said.

Despite the continuing decline in modern foreign language learning among UK students, with an investigation by The Guardian newspaper showing the number of UK universities offering a specialist language degrees falling from 93 in 1998 to just 56 today, it is not all bad news, according to Ilieva.

International themes

During research for the report, Ilieva carried out a text mining exercise with her colleague Rebecca Finlayson and found a growing number of international themes in the curriculum of UK universities, “with a strong indication that institutions are increasing the number of courses with globally focused dimensions”.

UK universities are also making reading lists more internationally diverse and decolonised and focusing on developing “globally-attuned employability skills”, with the report giving a number of examples including the University of Kent and Strathmore University, Kenya, utilising a COIL initiative to investigate the role of culture in marketing across cultures.

IaH can also be encouraged outside the formal curriculum, with the University of Bristol’s Global Lounge cited among examples. This provides a multicultural hub in the heart of the campus which operates as both a lounge to socialise and a place for collaborative working and events.

The report says that data is incomplete when it comes to numbers of UK students with study abroad experience because short-term mobility – a key feature of the UK’s replacement Turing scheme – is under-reported compared to the full semester or year abroad which featured in the Erasmus+ mobility programme.

The report also highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number of exchanges. The figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of home students taking a year out for a study or work placement abroad fell dramatically from the cohort of students entering higher education in 2016-17 when 23,370 students were recorded as having study abroad experience.

Most students took their year out in the second or third year of their full-time degrees during the period the UK was in the Erasmus scheme.

Ilieva said there are signs that student mobility is recovering in response to the Turing scheme, but the length of placements abroad is much shorter than under Erasmus, sometimes just a few weeks. However, one advantage is that Turing offers study abroad opportunities beyond Europe.

Integration of students

As for integrating incoming international students with home students, one of the features of successful IaH activities, Anna Zvagule, a Latvian-American from the Czech Republic, who studied politics and international studies at the University of Warwick, had a word or two of advice to offer UK universities.

“I joined a few cultural societies during my time as a student, but found that it could be quite insular. Students clearly felt comfortable among others in their own culture, but I wasn’t sure they were really experiencing university fully by doing so,” she said.

“Programmes like ‘international welcome week’, which occurs before the typical ‘freshers week’, can also be detrimental by grouping international students together. This can have the unintended consequence that they remain in that initial friendship group throughout their time at university and don’t really experience their host country fully,” said Zvagule, who is now promoting UK higher education to the world as head of communications with London Higher, the lobbying group for the capital’s higher education institutions.

International strategy

Dr David Pilsbury, chief development officer at the Oxford International Education Group, which produced the report with Education Insight for the IHEC, said the findings will feed into the process of producing a wider report suggesting what to include in a new UK government international higher education strategy.

“I hope people will embrace this report which identifies how IaH can improve the internationalisation experience of all students on university campuses, particularly by internationalising the curriculum, and offers an accessible and inclusive form of internationalisation.

“Some may say we are already making less money out of international students and who has the money to invest in this ‘fluffy’ stuff? – but the evidence in the report shows that this fluffy stuff drives recruitment,” Pilsbury said.

“Australia and other countries are determined to build back better after the pandemic and now is the time for innovation, which I don’t see enough of in the UK higher education sector.

“We need a more nuanced approach to a future higher education strategy – less focused on trade and more like a balanced scorecard approach – with international recruitment alongside better IaH,” Pilsbury told University World News.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com