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Posted on 17 Jul 2014 at 10:38 by Alex Bols (Deputy Chief Executive, GuildHE) and Vicky Lewis

Internationalising Higher Education

What are the key features of an outstanding modern university?

The answer to this has evolved down the years with the traditional double-helix of research and teaching more recently becoming a triple-helix incorporating business links and knowledge transfer. Internationalisation has been part of higher education’s DNA since the Middle Ages when academics travelled across Europe visiting Courts and setting up universities. However, in the last 15 years or so, we have seen an evolutionary jump in attitudes to internationalisation across the whole higher education sector.

There has also been a changing understanding of internationalisation with many institutions moving beyond the model of simply being universities with international students to becoming international universities.

Internationalisation strategies reflect many aspects of universities’ activities - from the staff and students they recruit, the curriculum they teach, the overseas study and work experiences they offer, their research and institutional partners to more high profile initiatives such as developing campuses overseas.

Institutions are in different places along this spectrum but there is a clear direction of travel towards increasingly comprehensive internationalisation.

GuildHE’s recent two-day strategic event on internationalising higher education was held at Ashridge Business School, and - as if to emphasise the theme - just days later Ashridge announced a strategic alliance with Hult International, the multi-campus business school, which is intended to lead to merger.

Understanding the “why?”

One of the key messages coming out of the event was the importance of having a clear rationale for why your university wanted to become more international.

What are the main drivers? These can be academic, social, economic or prestige-related and usually represent some combination of these (and other) motivations. (An exercise to get you thinking about your own particular institutional drivers can be found here – under Resources: Internationalisation Strategy.)

For those interested in exploring alternative models of internationalisation, Gabriel Hawawini of INSEAD develops a useful framework in this working paper.

Institutions need to be comfortable in their own skin and focus on their own strengths rather than trying to replicate what others do. When considering the best ways of developing the activities they have chosen to prioritise, it is important to think through the risks and any unintended consequences. Several participants at the event emphasised the fact that there are no short-cuts and it wasn't just about hard cash.

Different international activities carry different risk (and investment) profiles. The  attached PDF grid lists each major activity strand, indicating key benefits, cost, risk, questions to ask and sources of further information and support.

When it comes to some of the higher-risk international activities, there is a high “frog-to-prince ratio”. However innovation is about managing those risks effectively, not being afraid of failure, learning lessons when things go wrong - and knowing when (and how) to walk away. It was stressed that institutions shouldn’t rush from a good idea to implementation: there needs to be time for refinement.

The conference also highlighted the advantages of securing an external perspective. The QAA is currently looking at how best to assure the quality of trans-national education.  The case study from Harper Adams University emphasised the benefits of having been reviewed and how it had enhanced their joint activity with Beijing Agricultural University. This provided a tangible example of how an institution has developed a partnership in a way that clearly aligns with their own institutional priorities and has brought benefits to both partners and the students.

The student dimension

Recruiting international students is often the starting point for many institutions on the road to internationalisation. Regent’s University London highlighted that 90% of their students are from outside the UK, with 50% from outside the EU. However, they had a deliberate policy to ensure a balanced student demographic with no disproportionately large population from any one country. Their largest group of students is from the United States, making up about 10% of the student body.

A number of institutions stressed the ways in which they were counteracting perceptions of international students as “cash-cows”.  These included developing effective ways of integrating international students and supporting them through the key “pinch-points” during the student lifecycle - such as the transition to the UK style of studying. It was suggested that greater outward mobility of UK students also has a key role to play.

Whilst the UK is a long way from achieving balanced Erasmus student mobility, there has been a steady upward trend in UK-based students going abroad as part of their studies - and many GuildHE institutions are excelling in this. One example highlighted was Rose Bruford College, which systematically embeds study abroad within their courses and actively encourages students to study abroad. As a result, they have one of the highest proportions of outwardly mobile students in the country.

In conclusion

The strategic event demonstrated the variety of ways in which GuildHE institutions are strengthening their international dimension. There are plenty of examples of excellent practice and a real desire on the part of many to develop a strategic approach that gives proper consideration to the “why” questions, recognises the long-term commitment required and is willing to embrace a degree of risk in order to reap the benefits of internationalisation.



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