Learning internationalisation strategy: time to get real

Learning internationalisation strategy: time to get real

In the institutional strategic planning process, the task of regularly scanning the external environment to identify both opportunities and threats is now more critical than ever. Regardless of the extent to which institutions seek, or claim, to be international, the recent election of Donald Trump to the USA presidency, and the emerging consequences of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, pose genuine questions for the higher education communities in the UK and USA, and indeed for the wider concept of internationalisation itself.

At the macro-level, both results are a challenge to the assumption that internationalisation, in all its forms, is necessarily to the benefit of all concerned. Indeed, both results have been described as a form of nativism which explicitly rejects the value of multi-culturalism and internationalisation. As British Prime Minister Theresa May said at the Conservative Party Conference in October, ”if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere; you don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”.
The most startling aspect of this position is not its appeal to nationalism and the politics of patriotism and identity – British Prime Ministers of all hues have appealed to notions of patrie for generations – but the binary nature of the choice: you cannot be a citizen of your country and of the world; you must choose. If you choose poorly, your views are of no value. This is a genuine challenge to the very concept of internationalisation as it has come to be understood in the higher education sector.

International activities

At the micro-level, in both countries, where internationalisation has focussed heavily on international student recruitment as a form of income generation, institutions must now consider the practical implications on several key aspects of their operations. The May government continues to include overseas students in its immigration figures – numbers that it has pledged to reduce significantly. Moreover it has confirmed that students from the EU, who currently pay the same fees as those born in the UK, will be treated as overseas following the UK’s departure from the EU. The consequences for students from the EU wishing to study in the UK and the financial position of institutions with a significant stake in international recruitment can readily be appreciated and are, reports suggest, already being felt.
In terms of staff mobility, reports that UK academics are being excluded from international research proposals following the referendum continue to surface, while institutions are only now beginning to wrestle with the implications for staff and student mobility – perhaps the keystone of internationalisation. HESA data indicates that nearly 20% of the UK university workforce comes from either the EU or non-EU countries – a proportion which reaches nearly 30% in the more research intensive universities.

Future implications

In light of President-elect Trump’s pledge of “a total and complete shut-down” of Muslims entering the country, USA institutions are now facing an even more damaging scenario. The implications for institutions which have developed partnerships or franchise arrangements with institutions in the Persian Gulf for example, are significant. Although these institutions are often legally independent, they benefit enormously from freedom of travel and the cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge between the USA and other countries.
The future for UK and USA advocates of internationalisation of higher education is not encouraging. A feature common to both successful campaigns has been an explicit rejection of the opinions of the ‘metropolitan liberal-elite’ which is said to have dominated the political, economic and social agendas for decades. Indeed, Theresa May and Donald Trump have both sought to position themselves as advocates for those who feel they have been excluded. The higher education sector in the UK voted overwhelmingly against leaving the European Union – it is clearly part of this elite. By definition, its views carry less weight than they did.
In light of this changing global context, and amidst reports that similar movements are gaining ground in countries such as France and the Netherlands, is it time to ask whether the very concept of internationalisation as it has developed to date is still valid? Has its time passed – and should we adapt accordingly? Or should the advocates of internationalisation resist these movements – drawing on a belief that the purposes of universities are to enhance the quality of education, research and service to a global society; to shape the minds of future generations, to make them more aware of the world in which they live; more able to tackle the problems they face and more willing to engage with different cultures to do so? Perhaps the options for advocates of internationalisation are indeed as binary as UK Prime Minister May suggests: to align with the rhetoric or actively to oppose it.

Radical shifts

Whatever they choose, higher education institutions in the UK and the USA will soon find themselves forced to make radical shifts in their strategic approaches to internationalisation. To align with the new rhetoric obviously requires a paradigm shift in thinking, but to oppose it requires institutions to go beyond the rhetoric of internationalisation and purposefully to reconnect it to academic values; to consider internationalisation in the widest context of the institutional mission and indeed the very purpose of higher education – and to pursue these aims through clear strategies and strong (international) alliances. This is about so much more than recruiting international students or rising in the rankings. It is time to get real.
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.