International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Reflections on IHEF 2024

Enabling change

I spent the last couple of days at UUK International’s International Higher Education Forum (IHEF 2024). It was the first in-person IHEF since before the pandemic and I really enjoyed the combination of thought-provoking sessions and personal connections.

On the train back last night, I was reflecting on my immediate impressions and key themes.

Simplifying things drastically, I came away feeling that Day 1 was an opportunity to share our common woes (within the UK and with colleagues in the US, Canada and Australia), while Day 2 was more about pulling ourselves together, taking stock of the facts, coming up with some positive actions we can take, and considering perspectives from outside our ‘Anglosphere bubble’.

Sharing challenges, sometimes with a kind of gallows humour, was cathartic, but I was taken with what Sir Mark Walport said in the closing panel session. It was something along the lines of:

There’s no point expending energy on moaning about the things we can’t change. It’s much more important to focus on all the crucial work we are in a position to tackle.

Actions we can take

Some of the actions we can take are about countering negatives and others are about building on our advantages.

Here are just a few of the constructive recommendations made during the conference. I’ve broken them down into themes, starting at the micro level and building up to macro.

Improve the experience of our international students

It’s heartening that the 2024 Whatuni Student Choice Awards (WUSCAs) showed record levels of international student satisfaction. And a valued strength of the UK HE experience, highlighted in a forthcoming QS International Graduate Outcomes report for UUKi, is the diversity of the student and staff community and our strong spirit of inclusion.

However, we need to develop a mindset of continuous improvement when it comes to the student experience.

Practical steps include:

  • Make listening to students as easy as possible and act on what you hear. This can be as simple as: providing a QR code at registration, linking to a quick survey to provide instant feedback; ring-fencing a ‘coffee budget’ to facilitate informal conversations with international students; or setting up a student experience action group with 50:50 staff/student membership (ideas courtesy of Fran Glover).
  • Manage expectations at the onboarding stage by spelling out (e.g. via a pie chart) the proportion of time a student can expect to spend on different activities each week (contact time, independent study etc.) (idea courtesy of former UKCISA student ambassador Reese Chamberlain).
  • Invest in careers support and placements that meet international students’ unique needs and circumstances (according to the QS survey, 53% of international students said this was the main area UK universities could improve upon).

Re-establish our credibility with key UK stakeholders

Whether we’re talking about politicians and policymakers, opinion-formers or the general public, the UK HE sector has a hill to climb to re-establish credibility, particularly when it comes to student migration. This applies whatever happens in the general election.

Recommendations include:   

  • Acknowledge there’s a problem and be proactive in supporting strengthened regulation and the addressing of data gaps.
  • Consider how advance payments (application fees and/or deposits) can be used to reduce recruitment risks.
  • Build (and communicate) an evidence base of the positive impact that global links have on local employment, economies and communities.

(Ideas courtesy of Professor Wendy Alexander.)

Harness our academic expertise to tackle global challenges

At a time when UK universities risk fixating on parochial and (relatively) short-term policy issues, it was refreshing to be jolted out of our navel-gazing by two sessions on day 2 of the conference.

In a breakout session on knowledge diplomacy, Dr Tim Gore and fellow panellists reminded us that universities and their communities have the potential to influence policy on major global challenges like the climate crisis. Actions that institutions can take to support this include:

  • Encourage cross-sector, interdisciplinary, equitable (Global South - Global North) collaborations, providing particular support for Early Career Researchers (future academic leaders) to be involved.
  • Ensure students of all disciplines (the decision-makers - politicians, CEOs, engineers etc - of the future) are encouraged to engage with the climate crisis and other cross-cutting global issues.
  • Invest in communicating more effectively the expertise of academics; ensure policy advice is accessible and digestible with clear recommendations.

In the closing plenary panel on international collaboration, Professor Nishan Canagarajah and fellow panellists highlighted the need to:

  • Disrupt and rebalance the global research ecosystem which is currently skewed against the Global South (for more detail, see the Perivoli Africa Research Centre website).
  • Review hiring and promotion practices within universities and challenge assumptions regarding ‘research kudos’ (e.g. single authorship being the pinnacle of achievement in some disciplines) and the sharing of credit among collaborators.
  • Build within institutions (across both academic and professional staff communities) a golden thread of understanding of what is meant by equitable partnerships (to feed into changes in processes, partnership models, resource allocation etc).

Big ideas and small steps

Although I always love discussing the big picture when it comes to international education, I felt this year’s IHEF also provided some practical steps for individuals and their institutions to put into action. Some of them require a shift in mindset. Others require investment (financial or time). But there are plenty that are simple and cheap to implement, so there’s no excuse for sitting back and accepting the status quo.

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