International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Seeing internationalisation in a different light

Through the looking glassAt the end of my last blog, I expressed the hope that – over coming years – we (those of us working in higher education) will ‘critically engage with the “why” of internationalisation… and remember that the benefits… should be felt by all stakeholders’.

Earlier this week I read a University World News article by Stephanie Doscher (Florida International University), which asks the question ‘why internationalise?’.

The author draws on Simon Sinek’s concept of ‘why’ as a values proposition: the ‘purpose, cause or belief’ that gives rise to what you do and how you do it. She concludes that ‘under the right conditions, internationalisation significantly increases interactions among diverse people, ideas and perspectives, leading to enhanced knowledge production and the fulfilment of higher education’s fundamental purpose’.

As such, internationalisation is seen as an essential vehicle for HEIs to fulfil their ultimate mission (‘the production and exchange of new knowledge about the world and its inhabitants’), rather than an optional extra.

This set me thinking about the gulf between the dominant drivers for HE internationalisation in the UK (which are still largely instrumentalist) and those which might come to the fore if internationalisation was treated as integral to HE’s core purpose.

Constrasting drivers for HE internationalisation

My doctoral research back in the mid-2000s looked at national and institutional drivers for internationalisation.

These fell into four broad categories:

  • Economic
  • Prestige (often aligned with power and politics)
  • Social
  • Academic

The first two tended to be found side by side, while the last two were also closely aligned.

Needless to say, the Economic and Prestige drivers tended to dominate in the UK. The most honest answer to the question ‘why internationalise?’ was often: ‘to generate income and prestige / power / influence for my institution (or my country)’.

So, if the stronger drivers had been Social and Academic ones (as they tend to be in countries where tuition fees are low or non-existent), what would the answer to ‘why’ have been then? Probably something along the lines of: ‘to enhance knowledge production globally and make the world a better, more equitable place’.

These are very different ways of looking at internationalisation. The Social and Academic perspectives paint a picture of internationalisation as a process which is intimately entwined with the very purpose of a university. The Economic and Prestige perspectives see internationalisation much more as a means to an (often market-driven) end.

Of course, most institutions (and countries) embrace a mix of all four drivers. There are only a few which populate the extremes. However, stepping back and looking at how those extremes are characterised can help leaders to reflect on their institutional or national position.

Paradigm characteristics at the extremes

Typical characteristics of an institution or country at the extreme end of the Economic / Prestige drivers are:

  • Inward-looking
  • Competitive
  • Instrumentalist
  • Self-serving
  • Short-term focus

The kind of questions it might ask itself are:

  • How can we benefit from current global conditions?
  • What can we teach the rest of the world?
  • How can we boost our knowledge footprint?
  • What do we need to do to outperform others?

Typical characteristics of an entity at the extreme end of the Social / Academic drivers are:

  • Outward-facing
  • Collaborative
  • Values-based
  • Altruistic
  • Long-term view

It might ask itself the following questions:

  • How can we contribute to resolve current global problems?
  • What can we learn from the way others do things?
  • How can we play a useful role within the global knowledge ‘ecosystem’?
  • What do we need to do to form mutually supportive relationships with others?

Because institutional leaders (and governments) are expected to produce tangible results within a fixed period of time, there is a tendency (certainly in the UK) for them to be propelled towards an internally-orientated debate with a focus on short-term financial or reputational gain. This comes about due to factors such as the desire to make an impact while still in office, an obsession with rankings and the need to make money to plug (or stave off) deficits. Taking a long-term view is a luxury that few feel they can indulge in.

Yet focusing efforts on the long term and embracing Social and Academic drivers can still generate positive results in terms of income and prestige. It just requires some up-front investment, an approach focused on sustainability rather than immediate returns, and an attitude that treats money and influence as (eventual) happy by-products of internationalisation rather than the ultimate purpose of it.

Through Hawawini’s looking glass

I am always challenged and inspired by Gabriel Hawawini’s perspective on internationalisation. Rather than seeing it as being about how effectively an institution integrates an international dimension into its own ways of thinking and acting, Hawawini takes a more outward-facing approach.

For him, internationalisation is the work of integrating ‘the institution into the emerging global knowledge and learning network’. He envisages a global ecosystem of knowledge and learning where ‘complementary expertise and symbiotic relationships’ are valued; where there is more emphasis on learning from the world than on ‘teach[ing] the world what the institution knows’ (see my May 2015 blog).

In this context, internationalisation is about playing an increasingly valuable role within the global ecosystem. This requires extensive soul-searching about institutional purpose and the development of deep collaborative relationships.

Focusing on the wider ecosystem will gradually result in more internationally orientated thinking and behaviour within the institution. And the new ways of thinking and acting are likely to be more embedded, long-term and sustainable than if they were achieved via a more inward-looking ‘let’s integrate an international dimension into all our policies and procedures’ approach.

University leaders are challenged to look at the really big picture.

And that challenge should not be underestimated – especially at a time when uncertainty is rife and belts are being tightened.

How many can take that brave step back to see their institution’s internationalisation journey in a completely different light?


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Guus Goorts

16 May 2019 at 19:59 (Comment 1 of 1)

What we're seeing in the Netherlands now is that a too economic/numbers/prestige driven approach also leads to a backlash in society.

If internationalisation is just done "for the sake of it", it's by definition not sustainable. If it's only altruistic, may not be a good idea either. So agreed, we need a balance to be successful in the long term.



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