International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

What's changed in the last decade?

Back in 2005, I was doing the fieldwork for my doctorate (a DBA in Higher Education Management at University of Bath). This involved (amongst other things) a national survey of UK HEIs (administered via BUILA – the British Universities' International Liaison Association) focusing on key institutional drivers for internationalisation.

This blog summarises the survey findings which were generated exactly ten years ago. I then speculate on what might be different if I were to re-run the survey today.

Motivations for internationalising back in 2005

For the purposes of the survey, respondents (most of whom were Heads / Directors of International Offices) were asked to indicate the balance of their own institution’s internationalisation drivers across four categories:

  • Economic (i.e. income generation)
  • Prestige (or Political) (i.e. profile and reputation) 
  • Social/Cultural (i.e. equipping students and staff to contribute positively in a borderless world)
  • Academic (i.e. delivering education and research with a global dimension)

Taking the UK HE sector as a whole, the relative importance of institutional drivers at that time (as perceived by those professionally involved in international activities) was:

  • Economic                    38.5%
  • Prestige                       30%
  • Social/Cultural           19.5%
  • Academic                    12%

Looking at the proportion of respondents placing a particular driver outright top in their ranking, the picture was even more extreme:

  • Economic                    62.2%
  • Prestige                       33.3%
  • Social/Cultural           4.4%
  • Academic                    0%

A similar exercise was run with participants at a UKCISA (then UKCOSA) conference session in June 2005 and, even with a different respondent base (predominantly international student support staff and academics), the perceived balance of drivers for the institutions represented was similar and the ranking identical.

Within the sector, the Prestige rationale was most dominant among Russell Group institutions, with the Economic (and, to a lesser extent, Social/Cultural) rationale playing a more important role for Post-92 and non-university HEIs.

33% of respondents’ institutions had a written internationalisation strategy, with a further 30% working on one at the time of the survey.

30% of Heads / Directors of International Office reported directly to a member of the top management team, though this varied by institutional type. The proportion of institutions having given a specific remit for internationalisation to a member of their top team was very low.

Interestingly, practitioners believed that top management prioritised the economic benefits of internationalisation, whilst they themselves were more focused on the social benefits. A common theme in free text comments was the need for stronger institutional coordination and oversight in order to progress from a fragmented towards a more integrated approach. In many institutions, the internationalisation agenda appeared to be led by a desire to increase international student recruitment, rather than more holistic aspirations.

And what would things look like today?

I would like to think that, ten years on, there would be a much higher proportion of institutions driven by Academic and Social/Cultural motivations. However, with the huge influence of global rankings, the Prestige rationale would undoubtedly feature strongly for a large tranche of the sector.

One thing I’ve noticed is that even new HE institutions at an early stage of internationalisation seem to be starting off with a broader understanding of what’s involved rather than focusing solely (or primarily) on student recruitment. I guess internationalisation is less of an ‘add-on’ than it used to be and is more integrated into institutional identity and priorities. And I’m sure this would be reflected in a higher proportion of institutions having a written international(isation) strategy.

A major change would surely be the proliferation of top management posts with an explicit remit for internationalisation (adverts for PVC (International), VP (Global Engagement) etc. are commonplace nowadays). And I suspect a higher proportion of International Office Directors now reports directly to a member of the top team.

I wonder if there would still be a disconnect between the professed motivation of International Office practitioners and the perceived motivation of top management? I’d like to think that institutional discussions about what internationalisation means to a particular institution are much more explicit and widely engaged with. And that this leads to a shared ethos and a more coherent and integrated approach.


What do you think? How have the ethos and approach changed in your institution? I’d be really interested to hear how you think things have moved on since 2005…..

For those wanting more detail....

In case you'd like to try out an Internationalisation Rationale Prioritisation Exercise on your own institution, this PDF outlines how.

For a more detailed account of the findings emerging from my 2005 fieldwork, this PDF article on Integrated internationalism: interpretation and implementation in UK HE (originally prepared for the Education for Sustainable Development: Graduates as Global Citizens Conference in September 2005) provides a summary.

If you're a real glutton for punishment, here's my finished thesis on 'Integrated Internationalism' in UK higher education: interpretations, manifestations and recommendations (PDF).

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