International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

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This blog builds on two pieces that I posted back in November / December 2020 on The UK Strategic Plan Landscape and on International KPIs, which shared emerging findings from my research into the profile of the global dimension across UK universities’ current strategic plans.

This topic developed into Chapter 3 of my new report (UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink?) which covers the current articulation of global engagement strategy by UK higher education institutions (HEIs). (There’s an overview of all the sections and Chapters in the report here).

As I wrote in my November blog, different UK HEIs place different emphasis on global engagement / internationalisation within their strategic plans. For some it is peripheral, for others fully embedded. But, across the sector as a whole, what it its profile?   

Global dimension prominent in three-quarters of UK HEI strategic plans

Analysis shows that 60% of the 134 UK HEI strategic plans that were reviewed included a strategic theme that is explicitly international or global in scope. Just under a third of these theme titles are generic words like ‘international/isation’ or ‘global’. Among the rest, around half reflect the presence of an outward-facing ‘global engagement / contribution’ dimension; around a third exhibit a more inward-looking ‘profile-building’ dimension; and the rest focus on aligning the local and the global.

A further 16% of the strategic plans are fully infused with a global ethos and internationally-orientated content without this being included as an explicit strategic theme.

This means that the global dimension is prominent in just over three-quarters of the strategies that were current in late 2020.

A gap between rhetoric and metrics?

My December blog highlighted the fact that, while mission statements within strategic plans place a high emphasis on making a positive global contribution, by the time you get to international KPIs (key performance indicators), there is much greater emphasis on building institutional profile, reach and income.

A comparison between older strategic plans (published in 2013 or 2014) and more recent ones (published in 2020) show that the newer ones are more values-driven and that priorities have changed. There is much more emphasis on sustainability (in its environmental and social, as well as financial, sense), the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the climate emergency. Diversity and inclusion are common themes, along with social responsibility, justice and mobility (though there is little mention of decolonisation). The need to address global challenges – often through international collaboration – is stressed. Civic and community engagement are also highlighted, and sometimes linked to global engagement. Innovation is a prominent theme, though this is often quite regionally focused. And, surprisingly (given the imminence of a full Brexit at the time these strategies were published), there is remarkably little focus given to maintaining EU relationships.

However, the KPIs that are used to measure international success are (barring a few additions in the area of sustainability) broadly similar to those used in the older plans. The most frequent international KPIs in the 2020 plans were ‘position in world rankings’ and ‘number of international on-campus enrolments’, suggesting that metrics may not have kept pace with the more values-led approach and the change of scope reflected in the strategic themes.

Tensions to be resolved?

This begs some questions, explored via stakeholder interviews during the second phase of my research.

Does a fixation by many on traditional, largely quantitative metrics betray a predominantly commercial and prestige-orientated world view that does not align with the rhetoric? Does it reflect a lack of imagination when it comes to tracking progress in global engagement? Might it suggest a desire to show that ‘we’re better than others’, rather than a genuine effort to improve performance and optimise positive impact? Or does it simply reflect the challenge of wanting to make a valuable social contribution within a competitive context where institution-building is better rewarded?

Whatever the case, it results in some mildly schizophrenic strategic plans, with rhetoric that engages deeply with global issues and societal impact being coupled with success measures that revolve around institutional profile-building and income generation. Could this weak internal alignment lead to challenges when it comes to adoption and realisation?

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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