Posted on by Vicky Lewis
This blog largely reproduces the concluding chapter of my report – UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink?. (There’s an overview of all the sections and Chapters in the report here).
The current context for university global engagement is fraught with tensions: from the geopolitical level through to the institutional level. The pace of change is frenetic. In the time it took me to write up my report, new agent aggregators and partnership models came onto the scene and the UK government slashed budgets for ODA-funded projects.
The maelstrom of challenges and opportunities for universities, discussed at sector conferences and webinars, in academic papers and in the media, is only very partially addressed within UK national policy and strategy, which inevitably lags behind the wider debates and occasionally feels quite disconnected from them.
This time lag and disconnectedness can also occur in institutional strategies. The big ideas can become diluted and bold courses of action reined back. While the most recent strategies tend to be more values-driven than earlier ones, there often remains a disconnect between rhetoric and reality, between what HEIs say is important and the success measures they use. It is easy to get distracted from the big picture by comparing ourselves with others and fixating on the same metrics we have always used (and those everyone else uses). The hunger for genuine self-improvement can be lost, resulting in a vanilla version of what the institution has the potential to become.
Covid-19 has provided us with a structural break to rethink our approach to global engagement and address some of the current disconnects.
A theme which emerged strongly from stakeholder interviews and other sources during the second phase of the research was that of collaboration, joining up and mutual reinforcement. Responses to the pandemic have incontrovertibly demonstrated the power of international collaboration, institutions are starting to see themselves as part of a global knowledge ecosystem, and different functions within universities are recognising that they need to work together by finding common ground and sharing resources and expertise to address institutional priorities.
To capitalise on this, discussions need to take place – within HEIs and between HEIs and their stakeholders – to determine what internationalisation and global engagement mean for the institution and how they can support its overarching strategy and supporting strategies. This means using a global lens to help question core strategies for learning and teaching, research and innovation, service and community engagement, and to explore the relevance of internationalisation to enabling strategies like sustainability, people and culture, finance, and marketing and communications.
Any global engagement strategy, whether it exists as a written document or not, should consider the themes which emerged from this study, bearing in mind that choices will need to be made and that the focus should be on those areas which are of greatest strategic importance and where the greatest transformations are required.
Which shared global challenges can the university position itself to address, how can it channel resources to these, and how can global actions and local actions be aligned? How should the institution position itself to negotiate new and ever-changing global dynamics? Which partnership models are most likely to support its strategic aspirations? What changes are needed in order to ensure that all members of the community benefit from internationalisation? How can digital technology support these changes? What changes in operating practice are required in order to implement, monitor and adapt the strategy in a flexible manner? Are there alternative ways of measuring progress and impact, which truly reflect strategic priorities?
If the right questions are asked to open up discussion as the strategy is developed, there is an opportunity to grasp some of the bold ideas that emerge, to test them against institutional mission and values and, where appropriate, to embed them in a global engagement strategy that helps the institution to cultivate its own distinctive approach to internationalisation and to make a positive impact both globally and locally.
The full Global Strategies report can be downloaded from Global Strategies Report – April 2021.
That page also includes download buttons for the Executive Summary and for an Overview of key questions for HEIs to ask, as leaders develop, review and consult on strategy.