Getting our story straight and getting it out there

Getting our story straight and getting it out there

It wasn’t always this challenging. Sure, even in the past some people were not exactly enthusiastic about internationalisation and international higher education, but at least you were not often met with active resistance. But times have changed. These days there are direct attacks on what we do and what we believe in. Parts of our society do not take the positive impact or benefit of international experience at face value. Others seem to consider internationalisation as an affront to national culture and institutional heritage.

Some of these changes in attitude seem to have been driven or boosted by recent political developments. The US presidential election and the Brexit referendum easily come to mind, but they are certainly not the only ones. In many parts of Europe, recent election results and government policies seem to go against international higher education. Either indirectly, or in worst cases very directly, such as the attack on Central European University.

Countering these cases

In the past few weeks, I have been involved in intensive discussions on the impact of internationalisation and how we might best support it. Firstly in Geneva, where the EAIE leadership met, and subsequently at the AIEA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. The outcomes of these discussions are very clear and very aligned.

First of all, we should not succumb to criticism of our efforts, nor should we commiserate the difficult circumstances we are facing. No, instead we should be proactive, by reaching out to different audiences, including those who do not automatically embrace internationalisation. But how do we do that effectively?

Through concrete evidence…

One of the most important ways is to gather and analyse more data and research on the actual impact and outcomes of international higher education. This should come in many forms, but should also include serious longitudinal studies on the effects of international experience. These effects are both individual and institutional. They include cultural, developmental, but also financial impacts. They should be studied at global, European, national, regional and local levels. Only with hard evidence can we effectively make the case for our work.

...and complementary narratives

However, having data and research results is not enough. The findings must be effectively communicated to stakeholders. The terms we use and the narratives we choose to portray in our field are tremendously important. As ‘the other side’ has shown, simple and clear messaging, even devoid of factual basis, can capture audiences. No, we should not engage in shouting matches, but instead focus on effective communication, based on ‘facts in evidence’. The messaging should also be formulated differently to different target groups. What works for academia might not be effective for other audiences.

We can build bridges

Communication is also about reaching out. In recent discussions, I have heard testimonials on universities reaching out to their local communities (Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), larger industries, local politicians and general public) in an effort to really explain and expose these stakeholders to international students and academics and their stories. Exposing stakeholders to faces instead of statistics alone is a powerful strategy.

Sometimes it is best to start with the basics. Have a look at the new EAIE video, ‘The story of internationalisation’, and really make it a part of your advocacy efforts!

Markus Laitinen
University of Helsinki, FinlandMarkus Laitinen is Head of International Affairs of the University of Helsinki and is the immediate past President of the EAIE.