Strategic planning: realise your internationalisation goals

Strategic planning: realise your internationalisation goals

Many of us in the field of higher education have long-standing experience in our fields of expertise but are still relatively new to the concept of strategic planning, especially when this involves the whole institution. How might we define strategic planning with regards to international education, and what needs to happen within the institution if ambitious goals for internationalisation are to be realised?

Although it is shaped by the past and the present, strategic planning is a process that is oriented towards the future. It looks at the world in 5–10 years from now and seeks to shape future events rather than be dictated to by them. It links past, present and future by ensuring staff understand how history has shaped their institution, reflecting honestly on where the institution is now and the factors that affect it, and considering future objectives and how to achieve them.

Identifying future needs

Strategic planning is based on informed decisions from the analysis of comprehensive and reliable data, trends and scenarios, but it also integrates other, less quantifiable data, such as experiences, intuition and ideas. These enable institutions to identify future needs, for example demand for services, international trends, nature of competition, scientific developments and so on. Within higher education, strategic planning is a holistic and integrated process that considers the whole institution and understands its various interdependencies. It ensures a close articulation of academic strategy with other strategic areas such as support services and resource management (both human and financial).

By definition, the strategic planning process challenges any and every aspect of the institution. If a strong international purpose for the institution has been defined in the institution’s vision and mission statements, then all activities, be they in the domains of academic, support and/or resources, need to be consciously evaluated. You should be asking how, and to what extent, do  courses, projects, departments, expenditure, organisational structure, committees, etc help to deliver the institution’s vision and mission? What else could you do to deliver them more effectively?  As such, strategic planning might be considered as a process of constructive destabilisation.

Challenging institutional cultures

Strategic planning is much more than a technical exercise because it deliberately seeks to create an environment which some in the institution may find initially threatening and can challenge institutional cultures that may have become entrenched. Based on an understanding of its past and present, and a statement of its desired international future, it forces institutions both to reflect on and make clear choices – to work within the current culture, to work around it, to modify it or to move to a new culture.  All are acceptable choices, depending on the particular circumstances, but each is a conscious and logical decision based on the best evidence to hand, rather than received wisdom.

Institutional and individual change

In summary, strategic planning is problem focused and future driven. It involves prioritising and making explicit choices, setting realistic goals for internationalisation but stretching the institution beyond its current capacity. It involves making effective use of resources. It is implemented and reviewed in a continuous cycle, and it creates a sense of ownership and ambition.  In other words it becomes an instrument of institutional and individual change.

There is one caveat however: it will not achieve any of the above if it is a paper-based exercise only. This happens when rhetoric is greater than the reality and represents, at best, only a wish list. It happens when change is carried out only at the top of the institution, is only used for propaganda purposes, is disconnected from institutional reality, and when there are few instruments to enable action, therefore leading to no real consequences. Strategic planning is an involved, intricate and complex process that takes the institution into unchartered territory.  It is not a prescription for success. What it does do is provide a framework in which the answers to the internationalisation challenges it faces can emerge.

By Fiona Hunter, International Director, Università Carlo Cattaneo, Castellanza, Italy