Posted on by Vicky Lewis
It was a year ago this month, in April 2021, that I published my report UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a Rethink?
This triggered thought pieces for University World News, HEPI, Wonkhe, The PIE and others, as well as an article for the EAIE’s Forum magazine on distributed leadership in international education, one for Times Higher Education about placing language learning at the heart of internationalisation, and a recent one, co-authored with Omolabake Fakunle and Chisomo Kalinga, for International Higher Education on decolonial approaches to internationalisation.
I have also really enjoyed debating some of the issues raised in my report via conference sessions, webinars and other opportunities to engage with colleagues across the sector.
One year on, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on a few of the elements highlighted in the report and how UK HEIs are tackling these. In some cases, new themes and approaches have gained prominence; in other cases, we still seem wedded to our old ways and familiar territory.
As I pointed out in this November 2020 blog, nearly two-thirds of UK university strategic plans were due to be replaced between 2021 and 2024. While Covid-19 delayed development of some new strategies (generally those that expired in 2020), it accelerated the development of others as leaders were keen to bring forward some of the reprioritisation prompted by the pandemic (e.g. greater emphasis on online delivery; an explicit focus on certain research areas; more flexible working arrangements).
Over the last year, I’ve been involved in consultancy projects to help develop international engagement strategies or plans which support brand new university strategies. Although my direct experience only relates to a small number of institutions, I’ve been heartened by how seriously global engagement is being taken. In the past, I occasionally got the impression that a supporting strategy for ‘international’ was included as an afterthought or because it was expected. It now seems to be more central within the suite of supporting strategies and may well be discussed early on in the consultation process.
Although I think there’s still a lot more that could be done to bring diverse voices (beyond the usual senior leaders and including those from other countries and cultures) into the strategy consultation process, the consultations I’ve engaged with have been genuine and have welcomed challenge.
I’m going to pick out two issues that my report highlighted as ones to keep an eye on, which appear – based on their prominence in sector discourse (and job ads!), coupled with the conversations I’ve been having with colleagues at UK universities - to be rising in prominence across the sector.
First, there seems to be greater understanding of the importance of investing in the experiences of international students and, more specifically, supporting their employability: whether their aspiration is to remain in the UK after their studies or to launch / progress their career in their home country (or elsewhere in the world). Some universities are committed to integrating work experience into degree programmes, providing tailored careers support for international students and engaging with prospective employers at home and abroad.
Second, outward mobility of domestic students and other opportunities for international / intercultural engagement appear to be more prominent. There seems to be recognition that this is something many students value and a realisation that there are flexible / short-term / virtual approaches, beyond the traditional year or semester abroad model. Some institutions are making real efforts to make opportunities as accessible as possible to disadvantaged and underrepresented students, recognising that international experiences can help to improve engagement, academic results and employment outcomes.
The next area I’m highlighting has been a feature of international strategies for a long time: strategic international partnerships. There has been a lot of rhetoric over the years about moving from an organic, reactive approach to partnership-building, towards a more focused and intentional one, exploring the development of a few multi-faceted partnerships in key locations. Only a minority of universities have succeeded in realising this ambition, perhaps because it often involves stopping certain activities or pulling out of relationships: something we’re not very good at. Only time will tell whether the latest (heightened) emphasis on ‘being more strategic’ about international partnerships, building them on shared values, common interests (such as tackling global challenges) and long-term goals, will result in more focused partnership portfolios that are truly aligned with an institution’s strategic objectives.
Of those areas that have remained a high priority for UK HEIs, international student recruitment is at the top of the list. There’s palpable relief across the sector that the predicted negative repercussions of the pandemic for international student recruitment do not appear to have been realised and, at the same time, a bit of a scramble to do whatever it takes to shore up recruitment and grow enrolments because this is a reliable source of income which can help to cross-subsidise a range of activity areas that would otherwise be underresourced.
The aspiration to diversify source countries is still prominent, but I detect in some institutions a certain relaxation of emphasis, based on the fact that the Graduate Immigration Route has boosted interest from India at precisely the time that demand from China may be turning a bit more luke-warm, thus helping to even out enrolments. Those universities that are truly serious about diversification are taking proactive steps, often in the shape of high-impact, high-value scholarship programmes which are primarily about facilitating access for high-potential students from low or lower middle income countries (or refugees from war-torn regions) whose lives will be transformed and who will doubtless become lifelong ambassadors for the institution and the UK. In this way, diversification can be socio-economic as well as just geographical.
When it comes to measuring success in global engagement, a lot happens behind the scenes, with the published documents only the tip of the iceberg. However, one indicator that continues to take centre stage in many university strategies (as noted by Alan Preece) is performance in global league tables.
A lot has been written in recent months about the tyranny of global rankings (thanks to Enzo Raimo for this recent Tweet which draws attention to Colin Diver’s book on this topic). Within the context of university strategies, pursuit of rankings can sometimes be positioned so prominently and uncritically that it undermines any rhetoric about aligning priorities with institutional mission and values. If every university is competing on the same (often flawed) sets of metrics, the diversity of the higher education sector is compromised and institutional distinctiveness diluted.
It will be interesting to see how the latest UK university strategies (many are being launched this year) and their supporting international strategies differ from their pre-pandemic counterparts. I’ll be keeping an eye on what changes and what stays the same. It would be a welcome development to see some truly distinctive strategies with strong alignment between rhetoric, goals and measures of success.