Internationalisation data from the bottom up

Internationalisation data from the bottom up

This is the last blog post of the 2016 summer Forum series. Last week, we looked at the best resources of research and data on international higher education. This week, we have looked at the pitfalls of using data in international education, data for enhancing student satisfaction, data that can be used for recruitment strategies and how data can be used for evaluating returns on investment. Today, we look specifically at data collection on internationalisation.

Reliable and relevant data is an unquestionable necessity for policy making in current times, and international higher education is no exception. What data is gathered, how and under what definitions can have a great impact on future policies and how the sector’s achievements are communicated. Indicators of internationalisation and internationality of higher education vary widely among institutions and higher education systems across Europe. In recent years there have been numerous intents to identify and define internationalisation indicators to provide ‘interesting’ and useful information for policy makers, often related to international and/or national ranking classifications. Notwithstanding, there is no consensus on a set of internationalisation and internationality indicators. Goals and interests vary extensively among the stakeholders, as well as definitions of the different aspects of internationalisation and internationality, making it challenging to reach a closed set to suit all.

Making it a priority

Higher education internationalisation data was not an area prioritised by the data collection organisations in Catalonia, rather focussed on research activity and student indicators. Only a few basic indicators were systematically gathered under broad definitions that allowed different interpretations. In 2010 the public universities in Catalonia, under the Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)[1] published a joint Internationalisation Plan 2010-2015 highlighting a number of specific objectives and projects. One of these was the need to systematically gather internationalisation data of each university to create a comparable and representative database.

The universities of Catalonia, understanding the need to position their activities and the importance of proper data collection for future policy making took the matter into their hands and set up a working group to decide which indicators should be used to measure activities. It was specifically the international relations offices (IROs) of the universities in Catalonia that undertook the challenging initiative of selecting and defining a set of internationalisation indicators that represent their activities and provide reliable and relevant data for the sector.
 
The outcome was unprecedented: a list of indicators based on state-of-the-art research (IMPI and other projects) to measure and communicate the internationalisation activities of universities, accompanied by a thorough definition of each indicator reached by consensus.
 
This last part is particularly significant, since too often the definitions behind the indicators are not specific enough, leading institutions to misinterpretations and creating biased and unreliable data. The international education practitioners acting as experts worked jointly to find a consensus in each of the relevant indicators ensuring that the data gathered is reliable and relevant.

A work in progress

Identifying indicators is inevitably a work in progress in a virtuous cycle – identification, selection, definition – because the emergence of new items and conditions entail a return through the cycle. Time spent writing and sharing a definition is crucial for guaranteeing that, at least, when we count units it is not a wasted effort. It also guarantees that the comparison that comes to mind, whatever the objective, at least gives trustworthy and fairer results.
 
The fact that the initiative of identifying, selecting and defining internationalisation indicators arose from the universities themselves, allowed them to swiftly and relatively easily gain agreements on various aspects of work, from the choice and quantity of indicators to the deadlines for each of the different stages. The ‘bottom-up’ quality of the initiative ensured full commitment and participation of those involved. Additionally, the fact that it was a joint initiative facilitated the acceptance (and support during the process) of the outcomes by the different stakeholders (ie CIC and ACUP) and contributed to the general feeling that useful work was being done. There was a sense of ownership by the key stakeholders.
 
The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP) and the Interuniversity Council of Catalonia (CIC)[2] have provided support and resources to this initiative. The indicators selected are integrated into the regional database, provide comparable and valid data on the internationalisation of the higher education system and will continue to improve by regular review and close monitoring of the internationalisation data by universities themselves
 
Laura is Head of the International Office at Universitat de Girona, Sara is Head of International Relations Services at Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Alicia is Head of Projects at the Catalan Association for Public Universities (ACUP), Spain.
 
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[1] A non-governmental association that seeks to represent the eight public universities in Catalonia.

[2] A government body that represents all the universities in Catalonia.