International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Seismic shifts

Seismic shiftsWhen discussing themes that the next generation of global engagement strategies should address, my interviewees highlighted the need for institutions to negotiate a new set of global dynamics, including some seismic shifts in the balance of power.

Today’s blog provides an overview of key points that were raised. It draws on Chapter 8 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).

Interviewees recognised that the centre of gravity is moving from West to East. Higher education and research are expanding rapidly in many parts of Asia. A more regional approach to globalisation is emerging, with non-traditional destinations attracting international students from their region and new international education hubs developing.

Geopolitics, trade, ethics and the China question

Strategies will need to accommodate the fact that geopolitical relations can change suddenly, with international rifts generating swift fallout for higher education institutions and students.

Many strategies are therefore likely to emphasise diversification in order to spread bets and avoid over-reliance on a single partner country. The country most often mentioned in this context is China. Many UK universities are heavily reliant on international student recruitment from China and risks to this flow include political tensions, a falling youth demographic and an expanding higher education and research system.

It is not a question of turning away from China, but of adapting the relationship to take account of the new dynamics. As observed in The China question (a March 2021 report by The Policy Institute at King’s College London), on its current trajectory China is set to overtake the US as both the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the UK’s most significant research partner. This presents a new set of opportunities which need to be evaluated carefully in light of a number of challenges, including those relating to intellectual property and national security.

A few interviewees suggested that global engagement strategies should explicitly address issues of ethics, academic integrity and freedom of speech. Proposed approaches to tackling ethical challenges and protecting academic freedom are outlined in two blogs published by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

The Brexit effect

Brexit was seen by most to have made the UK appear more insular.

Some were clear on the need to strengthen European links for a post-Brexit world, recognising that the changing relationship with our EU partners has negative implications for diversity, both in our universities and in our wider society and culture. The profile of EU students venturing to the UK in an international-fee, post-Erasmus+ environment will be considerably narrower (in terms of geographical and socio-economic spread) than it has been until recently.

Some UK universities will seek to mitigate the impact through scholarships. Others have been exploring opportunities for transnational education in Europe. However, it appears from an analysis of institutional strategies published in 2020 that some may still be adopting the ‘wait and see’ approach.

The ODA debacle

Given the rhetoric in UK strategies about making a positive global contribution, one might expect to see explicit goals around capacity building and partnership with ODA-eligible countries (i.e. those designated by the OECD Development Assistance Committee as eligible for Official Development Assistance). This was mentioned by one interviewee as a proactive strategy but is generally not a prominent feature of UK institutions’ current plans.

It has also been rendered more difficult as a result of the UK government’s recent slashing of funding for ODA-funded research projects. This raises the question of the extent to which universities can claim the space left by diminished government commitment. Is it feasible for a UK institution to invest time and money in building relationships in parts of the world which may feel excluded from UK government priorities? And will the damage done to long-standing projects as a result of the budget cuts mean that institutions and organisations in certain countries are less willing to partner with institutions in the UK?

These are all questions which UK universities committed to making a positive global impact need to work through as they develop their strategy.   

Understanding other cultures

Several interviewees spoke of the need to be more responsive to other parts of the world and their needs, suggesting that we are seeing a rebalancing of global education via strategies that are more orientated towards collaboration and cooperation. Among some, there was a view that, if UK universities are going to interact with or partner with other countries, we need to understand their own strategies and priorities better.

This is echoed in The China question report and elsewhere. The UK will be ill-equipped to engage with other countries if we do not seek to understand them on their own terms. This means learning from them about their policy and cultural context, incentivising staff and students (at all levels and career stages) to spend time there, and proactively developing our competency in foreign languages.

For too long, our internationalisation strategies have been based on a colonial notion of the UK as an authority from which others wish to learn. That will no longer wash. As one interviewee put it: ‘The UK’s sense of internationalisation is more about showcasing what we do rather than learning from others. The absence of language learning from our strategies says a lot about the culture underpinning “English” internationalisation.’

From markets to partners

A comment about terminology made by Maddalaine Ansell at the British Council’s International Education Virtual Festival in January 2021 sums up the direction of travel for UK global engagement strategies that most interviewees described. She observed that the term ‘target markets’ (to describe those countries that UK HEIs prioritise in their marketing efforts) sounds inappropriate now, and that we should start referring to ‘potential partnership countries’ instead. For smart institutions, the time of one-way relationships (with the UK university seen as firmly in the driving seat) will be superseded by an era of reciprocal partnerships with a shared long-term vision and deep mutual understanding. 

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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