Academics vs. administrators: Who should rule the internationalisation roost?

Academics vs. administrators: Who should rule the internationalisation roost?

At the EAIE Conference in Glasgow, one of the now traditional debate sessions took place with speakers, including myself, from 5 different countries fiercely debating the role of administrators and academics in the international arena. Who should hold sway and why? For those of you that have never attended an EAIE debate, the topics debated are current and relevant to the working environment of international education and the hope is that participants go away from the debate with new, thought-provoking ideas and stimulating arguments.

As with any debate, there are two opposing – and often extreme – sides and no room for ‘sitting on the fence’. As my usual position on any issue is ‘fence-sitting’, I had to think long and hard about the arguments that I would put forward – I was debating on the side of the administrators – and it was a real challenge to have to argue definitively for one side of the argument. But it has made me consider this issue in a more evaluative light. I have over 20 years’ experience as an academic with international administration responsibilities and have, periodically, railed against both academics and administrators who I perceived to be frustrating the course of internationalisation. Until the debate, however, I had no real reason to sit down and consider the issue.

Why should administrators rule the roost?

We have all heard the gripes and moans about administrators. Pen-pushers, desk-jockeys, etc and sometimes these stereotypes will reflect reality. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the jobs-worth who won’t allow new initiatives to take place because of resource constraints, possible risk to university reputation, or because the initiative requires changing established practice. Yet, at the same time, administrators provide the systems and processes by which internationalisation works. We could not function without the solid practices and, in some cases, the restraining, cautious hand that administrators provide.

International administrators are, on the whole, knowledgeable, experienced and have an understanding of how each constituent part of internationalisation adds value to the university environment. Universities have changed dramatically in recent years. The emphasis is no longer so much on teaching, learning and research, but rather on hitting targets, raising income and saving money. And who best to do this than those who have been trained precisely to hit targets, raise income and save money?

In the complex world of higher education you need administrators to steer the ship of internationalisation, people whose targets are intrinsically linked to the targets of internationalisation and which are clearly defined (recruitment, Internationalisation at Home, etc). There is also, I feel, a difference between ‘the administration’ – a mythical behemoth that moves slowly and blocks new initiatives and the individual administrators who are usually trying to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Why should academics rule the roost?

We have all come across them – the stuffy academic who sees no further than his/her own research agenda and wants to have a partnership with some small university in the middle of nowhere because he once met someone who works there – an academic so closeted in his/her own career-fulfilling world that s/he fails to see the bigger picture. But, as with administrators, most academics who work in internationalisation do so because they have knowledge and expertise in the field and because they believe in the value of the international experience. Even though the environment of higher education may have become more commercialised, the essence of our existence has not. Universities are there to push forward the boundaries of knowledge and provide environments for learning that reflect the world in which we live. Internationalisation is an integral part of that, and any new international activity has to be developed and assessed in light of quality assurance, excellence in teaching, benefits to the student experience and world-leading research. And who is best placed to determine these? Academics.

Am I still fence-sitting?

I have worked with some brilliant people in my time in internationalisation and not often taken into account whether they are academics or administrators – unless they annoyed me! Nevertheless, the ultimate success, prestige and reputation of a university is based on academic quality and not on administration. Therefore, I do believe that it is academics who should be ruling the internationalisation roost. It is the role of administration to provide the mechanisms to enable academic decisions to become reality. By this, I do not necessarily mean the whims of individual academics who want to pursue their own international interests, but collective academic decisions that are taken for the greater good of the university and that complement and enhance the international standing of the institution.

Clearly, administration should provide a steadying and supportive hand, but it should also be there to find ways to make things happen: a ‘can do’ attitude to internationalisation rather than a ‘can’t do because…’ way of thinking. But academics can’t work without administrators and vice versa. In reality, it’s not about academics versus administrators, it’s about committed, motivated, inspirational individuals and teams working together to push the international agenda and to provide cutting edge, stimulating, internationally aware environments in which students and staff can flourish.

Maxine is Director of International Programmes at Loughborough University School of Business and Economics, UK