International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

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Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Searching for a silver lining

Like so many UK higher education colleagues who care about the international ethos of our universities, I’m feeling somewhat despondent about the direction of travel.

A silver lining?Staff from other countries are thinking twice about coming to work at UK institutions, which will reduce the diversity of our staff base and, with it, diminish the potential for innovation that is sparked by having a multiplicity of perspectives.

Students from other countries are feeling discouraged from choosing the UK amidst proposed further tightening of visa regulations (while competitors such as Canada welcome them with open arms and see the benefits of encouraging them to stay on and work after their studies).

And, following the tremendous efforts of universities and other stakeholders to increase the flow of UK students undertaking study periods abroad, further barriers may be put in place with loss of access to the life-changing opportunities offered via EU-funded schemes such as Erasmus+.

Cue much wringing of hands.

But I wonder whether there is, in fact, a silver lining.

Accelerating a shift in international priorities

A key focus of UK internationalisation (at national and institutional level) has long been the recruitment of international students (as highlighted in these blog posts on UK HEI motivations for internationalisation and the UK’s national strategy for internationalisation from last year). And perhaps – despite recent Home Office related challenges – we had started to take for granted our ability to attract international student and staff talent to the UK.

Although partnerships with non-UK institutions are already a growing priority within many UK universities’ international strategies (see this article in The Guardian based on 2013 research), it’s likely that they will become even more important – and that the nature of those partnerships will change.

Recent research into UK transnational education shows that partnerships with host country partners are embracing a more equitable model based on joint responsibility, mutual benefit and two-way traffic.

Theresa May said that UK universities should look for alternative income streams so as to reduce their reliance on international student fees (apparently overlooking the fact that such students contribute much more than income to their university and wider communities).

But maybe the external circumstances being forced on us will oblige UK universities to look not just for additional income streams but – more importantly – for different ways to ‘be international’. Ways which are not primarily focused on attracting international students from predominantly wealthy backgrounds to study in the UK, but are about developing opportunities that are accessible to a wider pool of students than could ever hope to spend three or more years in an expensive country like ours. Ways involving institutional partnerships which mesh together the very best elements of both local and UK higher education, offering a truly cross-cultural experience, delivered closer to home and at a more reasonable cost.

This applies to outbound mobility too. Study abroad opportunities are so much more likely to be accessed by those UK students who are already privileged and predisposed to travel, allowing the fortunate few to reap the employment (and other) benefits and thereby potentially exaggerating existing social inequalities.

Perhaps the diminution of EU-funded opportunities for study abroad will result in universities considering other ways to achieve similar outcomes. Ways to embed the development of intercultural competencies and global perspectives across the whole university community – staff and students.

An emphasis on ‘Internationalisation at Home’ shifts the focus from the mobile minority to the ‘static majority’.

Embracing new collaborative and inclusive approaches

As a consultant I’ve observed, among internationally experienced universities in the UK, a growing interest in transnational education partnerships and a recognition that this should be based on a two-way relationship. This is in part because host countries are increasingly rejecting the ‘education export’ model (see for example this HEGlobal post on Thailand), but I’d like to think this is not the only reason for a change in approach.

I’ve also noticed, among less internationally developed HEIs, a growing interest in equipping their domestic students for life and careers in a globalised context.

Of course, there are institutions that do both.

One thing these two approaches have in common is that they are (or can be) underpinned by principles of inclusivity and widening access. They can extend access to a globally orientated education beyond the (privileged) mobile minority. They can address the needs of those who – for financial, family or other reasons – must stay in their home country during their studies (whether that home country is the UK or elsewhere), but are seeking an education that provides them with a broader outlook and globally relevant knowledge and skills.

I suppose there is a risk that the UK HE sector may become (further) stratified into those institutions that can ‘afford’ to invest in offering such opportunities to international students in their home countries or regions, and those whose focus is more on what they can do for their student community in the UK.

However, if there is the slightest chance of a further shift in the dominant driver for UK international strategies away from income generation, that would be a huge step forward. What if there was stronger emphasis on embracing international collaboration for quality enhancement and innovation and on widening access to international and intercultural opportunities?

How ironic it would be if Brexit and its ramifications actually result in a less commercial, more ‘continental European’ approach to international education among UK HEIs.

Am I just desperately clutching at straws in my search for a silver lining?

Or are we up for the collective challenge of re-examining our motivations for internationalisation?

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