Beyond intuition: towards informed internationalisation strategies

Beyond intuition: towards informed internationalisation strategies

Strategy is about making tough choices. As Michael Porter asserts in the Harvard Business Review, “Strategy renders choices about what not to do as important as choices about what to do.” Higher education leaders are expected to drive the decision-making processes and set the future directions for their universities or departments. Rahul Choudaha, winner of the 2013 EAIE Tony Adams Award, shares his perspective about the importance of informed internationalisation strategies in this second blog in our series featuring EAIE award winners.

Nearly two decades back, Jane Knight and Hans de Wit provided a comparative perspective on the strategies for internationalisation and more recently OECD’s report highlighted the “Approaches to Internationalisation and Their Implications for Strategic Management and Institutional Practice.” In this time frame, the contextual environment for universities, including students, funding models, technology, etc have drastically changed; however, strategic decision-making processes have lagged behind.

The cost of misinformed strategies

Strategy formulation at universities continues to be based on anecdotal evidences, selective memories, and intuitions or sometimes even based on what is “felt” as a good strategy. While the MODERN project report notes that “traditional notions of collegiality and consensus-based decision-making have increasingly come under pressure”, it is far from integrating data and evidence in making strategic choices. There is a place for strategic intuition; however, it is too costly and risky for in the context of higher education.

The lack of orientation towards evidence-based strategic choices is further accentuated by a lack of data and information with institutions. According to a recent survey, only one in four chief financial officers at American higher education institutions reported a strong confidence in the viability of their institution’s financial model over the next five years. Over the next decade, this number drops by half.  To formulate effective strategies, institutional leaders need to make tough choices, yet they “acknowledge that their institutions do not have the data or the information to make informed decisions in key areas.”

The cost of misinformed strategies includes risks to institutional reputation and resources and inability to deliver on internationalisation goals and impact. Remember the stories of failed branch campuses to institutional ambitions hitting the stark realities?

The missing piece of the strategy puzzle

While there is an established need for building informed strategies, many institutions are missing the cornerstone of successful strategies –students– who differ in their needs, preferences and behaviors.  Internationalisation strategies often treat all students as one big monolithic block without much supporting evidence to research the best fits students with their institutional mission.

Consider the case of international student recruitment. The strategic choice of where to recruit and how to recruit should be guided by a bigger question: who to recruit? Subsequent strategic choices can be more effectively designed if institutions can clearly identify and articulate the student segment they wish to recruit.

A recent research report from World Education Services highlights the importance of understanding students through segmentation for developing an effective international enrolment strategy. The more informed the strategic choices are about students, the higher the likelihood of delivering results in terms of cost and impact.

To sum up, the days of intuition–based strategies are numbered. In times of increasing complexity, competition and costs, higher education leaders need to move towards formulating evidence-based internationalisation strategies. Of course, the move towards informed strategies should be tempered with experience to avoid paralysis by analysis.

Author: Rahul Choudaha, Director of Research and Strategic Development, World Education Services