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Posted on 5 May 2021 at 07:49 by Vicky Lewis

Lessons for the future

Strategy trapsToday’s blog focuses on some of the lessons that can be learned from an analysis of the global dimension within UK HEI strategic plans. It draws on Chapter 4 of my new 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 feedback I’ve received so far on my report suggests that quite a lot of UK HEIs are reviewing their internationalisation / global engagement strategies at the current time. It feels as if the country is starting to emerge from the worst of the pandemic and there is a little more bandwidth to focus on longer term plans.

Wherever institutions are in their strategic planning cycle, it is clear that they are having to invest in some serious strategic thinking, taking into consideration the radically altered external context and changing patterns of stakeholder demand and expectations.

My analysis of the HEI strategic plans current in late 2020 reveals certain common weak spots which may reduce effectiveness so, in the rest of this blog, I suggest ways in which these ‘traps’ can be avoided.

Build internal alignment

As mentioned in an earlier blog, Mike Baxter’s 2019 report (University Strategy 2020 highlights the importance of internal alignment, stating that: ‘Internal inconsistencies are what we have come to call the hidden trap of strategy. A strategy can read well, can look like it all hangs together yet still fall apart when examined in more detail’.

He goes on to write about the concept of cascade: the need for the top-level strategy to set the focus and boundaries to be applied in every sub-strategy.

The most compelling sub-strategies for internationalisation clearly relate to the main institutional strategy, demonstrating how they further its core aims, including those which are not explicitly international. Some do this through clear cross-referencing. In others it is evident that the consultation and development process for both institutional and supporting strategies took place in parallel, with each feeding into the other.

Some help the cascade along by outlining expectations in relation to Faculty or School-level responses.

Acknowledge the challenges

Many of the strategic plans that I reviewed seem to shy away from articulating the specific challenges that the institution faces and the changes it needs to make in order to overcome them.

The challenges that are spelled out tend to be external ones common to most HEIs. Perhaps because strategic plans are often treated as public relations vehicles, there is a tendency to focus on strengths to build on and opportunities to grasp, rather than being honest about how obstacles and weaknesses will be addressed via the strategy.

Those strategies that do acknowledge institution-specific challenges and tensions come across as refreshingly frank. It’s clear that they have given thought to the areas needing serious attention. This creates a sense of momentum, contextualising the strategy as a stage on an ongoing journey.

Ditch the laundry list

The international themes within some strategic plans appear to have been created from a laundry list of ‘things that need to get done’. This is particularly the case where an institution is at a relatively early stage in its internationalisation journey (perhaps because it feels it needs to make up ground). There is a tendency to throw everything international into an ‘international bucket’ in an undifferentiated and unprioritised way.

A smarter approach (which UK HEIs are becoming better at adopting) is to establish a limited number of (mutually reinforcing) high-priority international actions which, together, make the biggest difference and help to propel the institution along the trajectory towards its vision.

Strategy is about making choices (including choices about what not to do). The strategic plan of one internationally mature university homes in on three specific global priorities that it will focus on for the next five years.

Particularly at a time of crisis, it is important to strip back the extraneous and concentrate efforts on the absolutely critical priorities for change.  

Define your own success

As we saw in my last blog, this is a bit of a recurring topic! I have seen examples of strategic plans where the thrust of the international theme includes powerful rhetoric about making a positive global impact through international collaborations and mutually beneficial partnerships, yet the primary measure of internationalisation is to be in the top X institutions in world rankings; or the rhetoric appears to prioritise equipping all students to be global citizens, yet the main international success measure is ‘number of international students recruited to the UK campus’.

Although it is much easier to adopt hard, quantitative measures that allow for clear benchmarking against competitors, there is a risk that, by pursuing mainly or exclusively these, the strategic intent is compromised. It is also much more difficult for strategies to be distinctive.

Some HEIs adopt more nuanced sets of indicators, which are closely aligned with the specific institutional priorities they have identified. Sometimes it is clear that the indicators can be used to aid self-improvement in key areas, rather than just as a badge of honour to be promoted externally.

Thinking more imaginatively about how your institution defines international success (and evaluates progress towards it) is a step towards that elusive characteristic of distinctiveness.

Report download options

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.

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