Becoming more strategic about internationalisation

Becoming more strategic about internationalisation

In today’s increasingly global and competitive environment, universities are being forced to think more strategically about how to position and profile themselves in order to respond to externally driven change, and internationalisation is increasingly identified as a key response. This is where, and why, strategic planning and internationalisation are coming together, with internationalisation objectives increasingly (re)shaping both the academic agenda and the organisational structure of many universities.

Why strategic planning?

In any university there is usually a myriad of activities and initiatives being undertaken across the various faculties and departments, but there is also often a lack of vertical and horizontal interconnections between the different academic and administrative parts. Multiple goals and ad hoc approaches often prevent fulfilment of objectives, and may even lead to chaos. Hence the need for a more systematic framework to evaluate and develop a coherent university-wide response.

When a university engages in a strategic planning process, there are basically three questions it needs to ask itself:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?

Where are we now?

In order to answer the first question, the university needs to carry out a diagnosis of its current institutional performance in internationalisation, ie academic outcomes in terms of teaching and research, income generation, international student recruitment records, international profiles of staff etc; it should also look at the available resources (academic, financial, human etc). In addition, it needs to ask questions such as: Is this efficient and effective? Is it relevant? This is important information for the next question.

Where do we want to be?

In order to answer the second question, the university needs to understand its own aims, values and aspirations as well as the internal and external factors that require change. At this stage, it is useful to carry out a SWOT analysis to identify the university’s strengths and weaknesses as well as to map present and future opportunities and threats within the external environment. An accurate diagnosis is a key step in the process to answering the next question about institutional direction.

How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?

In order to answer the third question, the university will need to put together a steering group that will create an overall structure, direction and timeframe for the plan, as well as identify smaller specialised groups that can produce the content, in terms of activities, support and resources. It should be a comprehensive and integrated document, outlining the full range of activities with the relevant academic and financial resources and involving the whole institution. The strategic plan is thus a declaration of the university’s aims and aspirations followed by a set of objectives and timescales to achieve them.

Setting it all out on paper of course is not enough. Without people, it is nothing. While it must be driven and supported by leadership, it is through the active engagement of the many individuals across the university that the plan will be implemented and realised. It is essential to ensure transparency of the entire process so that everyone involved understands their role and contribution.

What can it achieve?

A strategic plan should be both ambitious and realistic, stretch but not over-stretch the university. Sustaining the plan over time means ensuring it is being managed, monitored and evaluated, that targets are being met, that adjustments are made as circumstances change or that slowness or failure to deliver is being addressed. Issues such as an academic unit unable to internationalise its curriculum, recruit international students or enhance its research output, should be picked up by the university leadership and addressed in a collaborative manner. A university that is being strategically driven requires an appropriate culture of quality and support. Strategic thinking is not compatible with bureaucratic cultures.

Strategic planning gives the university a clear purpose and direction and provides the rationale for organisational change. And change, if properly enacted, is an empowering and learning process, both for the university and for the individuals involved. If understood from this perspective, it can be experienced as an opportunity for institutional vitality rather than a threat to academic identity.


Fiona Hunter in cooperation with John Davies and Hans de Wit.

Fiona Hunter is International Director at the Università Carlo Cattaneo, Castellanza, Italy and EAIE Past President.

John Davies is Professor of Higher Education Management at the International Centre for Higher Education Management in the School of Management at Bath University.

Hans de Wit is Professor (lector) of Internationalisation of Higher Education at the Centre for Applied Research in Economics and Management, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands, and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy.