International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

A question of alignment

AlignmentThose who read last month’s blog will know that I am working on a research project which explores the profile of the international / global dimension in institutional strategic plans across the UK Higher Education sector; and that, rather than waiting until I’ve finished, I’m going to share emerging observations as I go (with the caveat that some of the details may change as I get further through the project).

Today’s blog highlights some issues to be explored in more depth at a session that Janet Ilieva and I will be delivering at the British Council’s International Education Virtual Festival on Thursday 21 January 2021. The theme of the Festival is ‘Sustainable Futures for International Education’ and it runs from Monday to Thursday of that week (I think our session is in the final slot).

Our presentation will first draw on my research to explore the relationship between the rhetoric in strategic plans and the international KPIs used to measure progress. We’ll then use Janet’s Education Insight Global Engagement Index (GEI) to investigate what actual performance against a range of indicators looks like at sector level.

Rhetoric and reality

My research shows that, in some sections of UK HEI strategic plans, the primary emphasis is on ‘making the world a better place’ or ‘global contribution’ (an outwardly orientated position), whereas in other sections, there is greater focus on building institutional profile (more inwardly orientated).

An analysis of 134 strategic plans indicates that mission statements place nearly four times more emphasis on global contribution than on international reputation and profile. This reduces to a factor of less than two when we drill down to the titles of strategic themes. However, when KPIs are scrutinised, the relative emphasis reverses altogether and there is around twice as much focus within international KPIs on institutional profile, reach and income as on global contribution.

This drift in focus may suggest a mismatch between the international / global priorities that HEIs say are important to them and what they actually measure when evaluating their success.

In his 2019 report University Strategy 2020, Mike Baxter 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’ (p.30). 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.

While a certain amount of reductionism is inevitable when selecting KPIs for that top-level strategy, there may be more imaginative and nuanced measures worth considering, which facilitate greater internal alignment between mission, strategic themes and KPIs (and can set the tone and parameters for any supporting international / global engagement strategy).

Opportunities for greater alignment

Janet’s Education Insight Global Engagement Index (GEI), launched in October 2020, takes a holistic view of global engagement, bringing together 30 indicators across the broad themes of student engagement and institutional infrastructure. Measures include students’ geographical diversity, transnational education, student success, study abroad, curriculum, international staff, environmental impact, sustainable development and international research.

In our January conference session, we plan to explore the relationship between strategic plans and GEI outcomes, suggesting ways in which the index can be used to develop more nuanced – and better aligned – strategies, support best practice and reframe the discourse around global engagement.

We’d love to see you there: British Council International Education Virtual Festival

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