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International Education Strategy and Marketing

RSS FeedEnabling change by operating differently

Posted on 10 Jun 2021 at 15:32 by Vicky Lewis

'No going back'

Enabling changeA strong theme running through my recent interviews was the idea that we cannot simply go back to pre-pandemic ways of working. As one person said, ‘I don’t think the world (or students) will let us “go back”. The old world isn’t there any more; there’s nowhere to go back to!’.

My last two blogs highlighted priorities that need to be addressed in future global engagement strategies. One focused on inclusive approaches to developing global perspectives and another on rethinking partnership models.

Strategies are all about change. And change needs to be enabled. It will only be achieved if the conditions are right. This is why so many UK university strategic plans include one or more ‘enabling objectives’.

This current blog explores some of the institutional conditions, approaches and operating practices that will best facilitate delivery of a post-pandemic global engagement strategy. Of course, every university is different, so some aspects may be more relevant to you than others.

The blog draws on Chapter 11 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).

A meaningful, living strategy

First, the nature of the strategy itself may need to change. As one interviewee observed: ‘it’s not about the coffee table version, but about generating meaningful activity’.

Several people highlighted the need for a stronger ‘people’ focus. This goes beyond simply consulting with stakeholders. It extends to enriching the strategy with the voices and experiences of future and current students, alumni, parents, employers, academic and professional staff. As one interviewee described it, it is about ‘bringing people together and maintaining the heart and soul of internationalisation’.

Most interviewees commented on the need for future strategies to define a meaningful, long-term vision, while being more flexible, agile and less timebound than predecessor strategies. As one interviewee whose institution had a very new strategic plan put it: ‘Strategies have to have elastic horizons. We’re managing this by having a living strategy that is regularly reviewed. It needs to flex around everything else that is going on.’

There are echoes here of Jeff Bezos’ assertion about Amazon that ‘we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details’ (with thanks to Mike Baxter of Goal Atlas for sharing this reference).

The general view was that it is less about defining timescales and more about rolling changes and ongoing light-touch reviews that are integrated into day-to-day operations.

This requires the encouragement of strategic thinking as a matter of course. Not just as something that takes place when there is a strategy or plan to be produced; or something that is seen as the preserve of a handful of ‘strategic thinkers’ at the top of the organisation.

From silos to shared responsibility

Most interviewees commented on the need to spread the global engagement ethos throughout the institution. This was contrasted to centralised or top-down approaches which tend to treat global engagement as the responsibility of specific individuals and departments.

One Pro Vice-Chancellor observed that successful global engagement is more to do with culture and behaviour than any written strategy. They saw their job as explaining how global engagement aligns with institutional values, driving it forward and ensuring it is integrated within the institution, its strategies and behaviours.

A few interviewees spoke of disconnects between leadership teams and academics and between academics and practitioners when it comes to internationalisation. It was suggested that leaders need to share their dilemmas more openly with academics and explain the consequences of certain courses of action, helping them to see the bigger picture. It was also proposed that academics could do more to show how linkages can be made between their areas of expertise and internationalisation strategy and practice, observing that ‘it needs to be understood that developing an international university is everyone’s business’.

While effective committees, frameworks and processes were seen as useful to marshall efforts, it was also seen as important to plug into the less formal ecosystem of people with knowledge, enthusiasm and energy; to disperse leadership and encourage local projects. Some advocated the Task and Finish group, project-based approach as being more agile and facilitating swifter progress than formal committees. One interviewee from a large, highly internationalised institution said that they planned to move away from ‘target markets’ and associated country / regional groups and towards a focus on specific initiatives and opportunities.

It was suggested that the introspection and fire-fighting forced on us by the pandemic means that many leaders are eager to think more broadly and longer-term. This may help institutions to move away from silo-based strategies and towards cross-cutting ones based on mutual reinforcement.

The changing face of the international office

Many UK international offices have changed over the years from being a standalone, comprehensive function to one where international activities are more distributed and the international office itself perhaps embedded within a larger directorate.

We have also seen the advent of more in-country offices / regional hubs, taking on a large proportion of the travel that used to fall to UK-based International Officers. On top of that, the pandemic-induced shift to digital marketing and recruitment has left many staff with very different-looking jobs. Additional factors such as the need to reduce travel-related carbon emissions and a desire to move away from the colonialist model of operating (where UK-based staff fly in and out of a country, directing operations from ‘UK headquarters’) will likely reinforce some of these changes and lead to a further rebalancing of resource between UK-based and in-country staff.

Less long-haul travel for UK-based international office staff may leave more capacity for working with internal colleagues right across the institution to support initiatives that help to embed global engagement.

From lip service to active changes

A further theme that emerged from the interviews was the need to ‘walk the talk’, to ensure that the laudable words in strategy documents are followed through by active changes in behaviour.

One example is proactively addressing the climate emergency through policies and practice relating to staff and student travel. Some UK universities are starting to announce their intention to minimise staff international travel. Covid-19 has demonstrated that remote conferences can be effective and more inclusive. The same goes for international student recruitment. There are opportunities to do more agent training and prospective student interviews online, and to make the move to paperless marketing. Higher-impact changes can doubtless be achieved if international office and sustainability professionals work hand-in-hand.  

Another example relates to diversification of the international student body – both to reduce overreliance on a single country and to enhance the student experience. This is an explicit aim in some global engagement strategies, but concrete supporting actions are less visible. One interviewee suggested that universities might ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and allocate a share of the income from international student fees to targeted scholarships. The same person noted that ‘if diversification really is important, scholarships are such a crucial tool. It reinforces the EDI agenda and goals of widening understanding and making a safer world. It is about recognising the wider inequalities in the world and addressing these. It is not wholly altruistic: it would drive more students to the UK in the long run’. 

The questions we need to ask ourselves

Universities currently reviewing their strategies should ask themselves searching questions such as:

  • How can we ensure key stakeholders see themselves reflected in our strategy?
  • What needs to change in order for us to deliver our strategy in a more agile way with ongoing review?
  • What is needed from leadership roles in the area of global engagement?
  • What mechanisms are needed to help foster cross-institutional debates on internationalisation and to support the bringing together of expertise from different areas of the institution?
  • What remit and configuration will our international office (or equivalent) have in the new landscape?
  • What active changes need to be made – in policies and behaviours – to show true commitment to our agreed strategic priorities?

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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