Learning internationalisation strategy: configuring appropriate support

Learning internationalisation strategy: configuring appropriate support

Speaking with our colleagues in the internationalisation community recently, we were struck by the current debate around the appropriate approach to internationalisation in the context of institutional strategic planning and the implications for the future configuration of support for international students. This blog visits the pros and cons of integrating international student services with home student services.

In many ways, this is an age-old debate which applies to other higher education institutional activities as much as internationalisation. In short, it comes down to whether internationalisation is best pursued through a specific internationalisation strategy and implemented through the medium of a specialist international office, or through the dispersal of internationalisation activities across the institution? Centralisation or dispersal? Concentration or integration?

International versus home student services

Let’s take a simple example, the student life-cycle. Many institutions will view the process through which all students pass, from their initial contact with the institution’s marketing activities, through recruitment, admission, enrolment, study, assessment, graduation and alumni.

Responsibility for the support of students is passed between different parts of the institution as they progress from someone interested in study at an institution to a fully-fledged graduate. Though institutions will differ in terms of where the boundaries between these functional units lie – for example you often see Student Support, Alumni and Registry functions grouped under the general banner of ‘Student Administration’ – the process is largely the same.

International students, however, have specific needs, in terms of admissions criteria, visa support, language training, accommodation and student support. The solution adopted by many institutions is to create a separate international office or separate international services in which international expertise is concentrated and which provides direct support to international students in these areas. In this instance, international student marketing, recruitment, registration and student support all fall under the category of ‘International Office’ or ‘International Services’.

These specialised international services/units have assumed many of the responsibilities of other units in the administration and support of international students. This can include marketing, which often uses agents based in countries targeted for recruitment activities. It includes admissions, in which the international office’s expertise in legal matters around visas, student support and accommodation is often key. Though, in this example, academic management remains the responsibility of the faculty and graduation and alumni support with a dedicated office, it is possible some aspects of these functions can also be picked up by a dedicated international office.

The pros and cons combined services

The advantages of creating specialist international services to support different aspects of the international student life-cycle are readily apparent. It creates a ‘one-stop-shop’ to which international students can turn for all aspects of their support. It encourages the development of close working relationships and creates a level of expertise and efficiency as it becomes more proficient in the kind of problems that regularly confront international students. In turn, this proficiency enables institutions to reap the maximum financial benefits from international students by reducing inefficiencies, concentrating expertise and taking advantage of economies of scale. These same savings might potentially enable some institutions to avoid fee increases or introduce a policy of lower fees for some programmes.

There are downsides however. International offices with extensive administrative responsibilities can become, in effect, institutions within institutions. They risk minimising the interaction international students have with other elements of the institution. Yes, they will interact with their fellow students during the course of their studies, but to what extent does that extend to social interaction and student support? Staff can also be affected. If all international recruitment and admissions are conducted outside of the marketing and admissions office, it will reduce the level of expertise contained therein. Specialisation may make staff more proficient, their skills deeper, but it runs the risk of also making them more narrow and reducing their potential to move between positions in the medium to long-term.

Not least, the separation of international students removes the possibility of non-international students benefitting from services they might find useful. Guidance on financial management, medical facilities, accommodation and other student support activities are obvious examples, but non-international students might benefit from the kind of support in language and academic writing commonly offered to international students.

The integrationist approach

Where do we sit in this heated debate? Well, at the risk of splinters, somewhere near the middle. There are advantages to both approaches and the choice will always depend to some degree on institutional circumstances and individual experience and preferences. That said, our experience increasingly pushes us towards the integrationist approach – we have written in other blogs about our approach to strategic planning. We argue that the principal activities through which any institution achieves its mission and vision are academic – teaching, research and outreach. In these circumstances, internationalisation is a form of these activities and not a distinct activity in itself. If form follows function, structure follows purpose, then our preference is to encourage institutions to reap the maximum benefits of internationalisation by integrating it as far as practicable into their mainstream activities.

Admittedly there are downsides, and often these are financial. Institutions need to consider these carefully. However, our view is that the benefits of internationalisation are academic, cultural and social as much as they are financial. By all means recognise and support the particular needs of international students, but in so doing, do not ignore the extent to which they share such needs with others, and make every effort to facilitate the benefits of these activities to the entire institution.

In organisational terms, this means institutions retain the current choice. Centralised internationalisation services can be of great value. In practical terms, we urge institutions not to exclude other students from accessing them as appropriate and to encourage all involved in their provision, to build cross-functional teams to support all students and staff in their daily activities as needed.

Fiona is Associate Director at the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation (CHEI) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy and an independent higher education consultant. Neil is an independent consultant in higher education management and strategic planning based in the UK.