21 Apr 2017

Getting to know your neighbours: connected in the region, ready for the world

Generally speaking, getting to know your neighbours has its perks: you can borrow a carton of milk, help each other out, share great conversation and work to make your neighbourhood better. In academia as at home, life is that much better when you get to know your neighbours and it starts in the most basic form, by talking to each other. Sharing knowledge, ideas and expertise is all part of the strategy of regionalisation – and vital to internationalisation.

 

Internationalisation starts on your doorstep

While Maastricht University is known for its strong international footprint and status as the most international university in the Netherlands, what I find particularly appealing about our profile is our greater regional dynamic: how our university is so connected to the city of Maastricht, active in the province of Limburg and firmly rooted in the Maas-Rijn Euregion.
 
Because of our location, nestled in the heart of Europe, we have Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg practically on our doorstep. We are a stone’s throw away from Brussels and a short drive from the Randstad, one of Europe’s largest metropolitan regions. At Maastricht University, we understand how a regional strategy can complement an international one and vice versa.
 
As an advocate for the region, our president, Prof. Dr. Martin Paul, describes these strategies as “two sides of the same coin that form a continuum”. It is fair to say, to a degree, that as a young research university we have been born into this region, with potential on our doorstep. However, our efforts as a progressive institution and a collaborative player to embrace our location and enhance our potential by developing strategies, creating opportunities and ultimately getting to know our neighbours should not be underestimated.
 
It has been a long road, entailing four decades of discovery, learning and collaboration, with a focus  on making the best of the region. The Bologna Process has also been instrumental in opening doors to stimulate this process of regionalisation in higher education.

Brightlands: great things happen when knowledge crosses borders

One of the major results of our focused regionalisation work and collective efforts is Brightlands – a dynamic community initiative bringing knowledge institutions, companies and government bodies together to combine science, business and education in the areas of health, food and smart services, while using a broad range of materials. Brightlands is a true example of successful regional collaboration.
 
The initiative is a concrete example of how great things can happen when knowledge crosses borders. Brightlands is an initiative where scientists can experiment and carry out research, business women can develop ideas and implement strategies, and students can get jobs in this hotbed of innovation. In short, Brightlands stimulates learning and brings employment opportunities to the region.

From region to world

Another example of the early regionalisation efforts of Maastricht University is that we were the first implementers of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) in the Netherlands in the early 1990s. We began implementing EMI because we wanted to attract and serve academics, students and staff beyond our country borders from within the larger Western European region and beyond.
 
Over time, and along with the development of our internationalisation and recruitment strategies, we began to attract more and more students from further afield. Today we welcome our neighbours from all across Europe, from the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, South East Asia, Australia and the Americas as well as students from across the region and the Netherlands.
A third and final tactic in developing a regional internationalisation strategy is to get involved in and really utilise networks. Networks come in many shapes and sizes, and they can be an ideal framework to meet likeminded stakeholders, share ideas, exchange expertise and knowledge, and create opportunities. We are involved in international partner networks like the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) and the Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN); these help us develop relationships within Europe, but also further afield and even globally.

Start small but think big

Our location and involvement in the region has significantly influenced our development as an institution primarily because we embraced our situation. I believe all institutions can benefit by first looking to their own profile – what your university has to offer in line with its strengths – and then determining what kind of projects and collaborations would further complement that profile. The best collaborations strike a balance: everyone has something unique to bring to the table, and everyone gains from the interaction.
 
Most importantly, don’t underestimate what’s happening in your own back yard. Start small, but think big! Maastricht University has definitely found a correlation between regionalisation and internationalisation in that a lot of our experiences as an institution on a regional level – including providing English-language instruction and getting involved in networks – have certainly helped equip us for the international context.

Break down borders

With the current state of global and European affairs, specifically the rise of populist politics and nationalism, it is of the utmost importance that we continue to drive cross-border collaboration in higher education – in learning, teaching and research. A higher education institution cannot grow and thrive within its national borders; such an inward focus goes against the ethos for which scientific research and education stands.
 
Now more than ever, we need to break down barriers, cross borders, share knowledge and work together. We have done our best at Maastricht University to embrace our own location and situation, and my advice is for you to do the same at your institution. Look at your strengths, identify the direction in which you want to grow and get to know your neighbours. Great things happen when knowledge crosses borders – let’s keep it happening in higher education!
 
Aisling Tiernan is Internationalisation Advisor at Maastricht University, the Netherlands.
 
This is the final blog post of the 2017 spring Forum series. The full version of Forum is online in the Resources corner, and EAIE members will receive their copies on their doorsteps soon. Make sure to download the Editor’s pick or gain full access to Forum by becoming an EAIE member.