Learning internationalisation strategy: engaging external support

Learning internationalisation strategy: engaging external support

This is the first in a brand new series of blog posts by Fiona Hunter and Neil Sparnon: Learning internationalisation strategy. Both authors have worked for many years in a variety of academic and administrative positions in higher education institutions across Europe, and now work as consultants in higher education around the world. As such – and with apologies to Joni Mitchell – Neil and Fiona have “looked at university life from both sides now”.

In an earlier blog post on strategic approaches to internationalisation, Fiona identified three key questions that a higher education institution needs to ask when it engages in a planning process:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How do we get where we are now to where we want to be?

These questions are not reserved exclusively to internationalisation, but are a good starting point for any strategic planning process in higher education. If a university is prepared to take an honest, frank and well-informed look at its current position, it will be able to think more realistically about its future direction. This includes the steps it will need to undertake, the timeframe and the required resources – both human and financial – in order to reach its goals.

Strategic change

In this blog post, we will not only focus on the centrality of these questions, but also the extent to which it is useful to engage external support to assist the change process. We pose these three questions to any higher education institution about to undertake a process of strategic change.  The answers not only enable us to understand the current realities and future aspirations of the institution, but also provide the institution itself with fundamental insights into the views of its staff, students, partners and stakeholders.  These insights inform the decisions that follow, their implementation and the nature and detail of the support we offer.

Long-term perspective

One of our observations is that these conversations focus more and more on internationalisation as institutions increasingly seek to define what their international dimension is and should be and how it should connect to – and support – their missions more effectively. As internationalisation objectives become more central to strategy, they begin to reshape both the academic agenda and the organisational structure. The extent of such change is not to be underestimated. This is where an external voice can be helpful in bringing a different perspective to these conversations – enabling uncomfortable or difficult questions to be asked, identifying potential obstacles and their solutions, or sharing examples and stories from other institutions.

Additional consequences

Academically, designing and delivering internationalised curricula, strengthening international research capacity or developing strategic partnerships, are complex operations that go beyond the work of an individual or small academic team. They require coordination across a broad range of units that may not have the experience of working jointly in large long-term projects. Organisationally, this has consequences.  It may lead institutions to consider whether it is more appropriate to move from a centralised International Office, to a more dispersed model in which the international  capacity of, for example, quality assurance, marketing, finance, or curriculum development is strengthened.

Knowledge transference

In many instances, the capacity to embrace a more comprehensive approach to internationalisation does not exist, in which case consultants can play a key role in providing appropriate professional development: enhancing institutional internationalisation capacity within a wider framework of strategic management. This means that if a university opts to bring in consultants, it should ensure that part of the contract is about transferring knowledge to its own staff members. Consultants should be seen as facilitators of change, assisting the university to identify solutions to problems and enabling those responsible, both academic and administrative, to learn new ways of thinking and doing in internationalisation.

The last thing we want to see happen is senior management looking back at the end of the internationalisation planning period and sighing, as Joni Mitchell so woefully sings, “so many things I would have done but clouds got in my way”.

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.