International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Building a distinctive strategy

Time to be braveToday’s blog outlines why now is the time for a new approach to HEI strategies for global engagement. It then explores underlying drivers and opportunities for differentiation. It draws on Chapters 5 and 6 of my new report – UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink?. (There’s an overview of all the sections and Chapters in the report here).

As we emerge from the pandemic and deliberate over our future strategies for global engagement, it’s clear that these strategies must fulfil multiple purposes. They need to make a positive impact across different aspects of institutional mission; and to define a valued and distinctive position for the university within a changed global higher education landscape. At the same time, they have a role to play in aiding their institution's post-pandemic recovery and building financial sustainability.

So, how can we ensure they are fit for purpose? How can we avoid retreating into strategies that are entirely commercially driven, or embracing lofty ideological aspirations that are undeliverable, or developing Janus-faced strategies that say one thing and measure another?

I have noticed, over the years, that the forward-looking ideas and new opportunities which excite academics and practitioners when discussed in sector conferences, opinion pieces and working papers often get diluted (or dropped altogether) when institutional strategies are developed. Some may be picked up, but this is generally as evolutions or adaptations of existing activities, rather than in their more radical, raw and, perhaps, risky form. While it may be inevitable that written strategies reflect a degree of caution, perhaps now is the time to embrace some of the more far-reaching changes that could take an institution’s global engagement in new and distinctive directions.

Challenging assumptions

Several of my interviewees emphasised the importance of going back to fundamental questions about what the university is for, why it engages globally, and what it really means by internationalisation and global engagement. Considering these questions at the current time, having experienced a global pandemic, may generate a new set of responses and HEIs, as learning organisations, have an opportunity to reset their strategy and (in the words of one interviewee) ‘be brave’.

Part of being brave is inviting other voices to challenge our assumptions. We must be aware that, in the UK, we adopt an approach to internationalisation which is embedded in the context of the Anglosphere and applies Global North perspectives. Those leading strategy discussions need to be reflective and actively challenge stereotypes. They need to include diverse voices – including the student voice – if the strategy is to be transformative.

Negotiating tensions

Conversations are also needed to negotiate gaps and tensions, especially those between institutional values / mission and government policy.

For example, the UK government’s heavily export-focused International Education Strategy, despite its positive points, does not really encompass the wider relationship building and global leadership that is needed as a foundation for the activities championed by the strategy. It is decoupled from the research and service to society missions espoused by most universities and articulated in their own strategies. Despite being called an International Education Strategy, it covers only very partially the education mission (there is little about the curriculum, language learning, intercultural interactions, staff exchange, for example).

Government rhetoric about Global Britain being an outward-looking science superpower with the will to collaborate is undermined by the reality of an approach – demonstrated by swingeing cuts to ODA-funded research – which damages long-standing partnerships and screams insularity.

University communities need to determine how their strategies for global engagement will fill in the gaps, tease out the tensions and home in on those top priorities that align with their values.  

Taking a distinctive stance

Some interviewees argued that universities have a powerful voice which is not being used to ‘say who they are’. UK sector discourse has long flagged the dangers of sector-wide homogeneity, of institutions seeking to be all things to all people, emulating one another and thereby diluting any differentiation of mission. In his March 2021 book, The New Power University, Jonathan Grant urges universities to be more up front about what they stand for, suggesting that this would be healthier in terms of greater institutional diversity and a more honest public discourse.

Within institutions, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves searching questions:

  • How are we going to ‘be international’ in a sustainable way in the post-Covid context?
  • Which global issues will we address head on?
  • Are there principles associated with global engagement that the university community cares about strongly enough to nail our colours to the mast?

Exploring these questions, through inclusive discussions that involve diverse voices and perspectives, is a process that can help a university to find a more distinctive role within the global higher education landscape.

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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