The struggle and success of services internationalisation

The struggle and success of services internationalisation

When I became Vice-President of the EAIE, in 2010, I stepped down as Director of the International Office (IO) at Tilburg University and became Programme Manager. In this role, I became responsible for a university-wide programme that had started in 2007 called ‘Towards an International Campus’. Through the internationalisation of services, the  programme aimed at making international students and employees feel welcome and at home at Tilburg University.

Dutch research institutions have nice international strategies, the challenge is implementing them. In most cases, implementation is about increasing exchanges, starting new English-taught programmes, improving international partnerships, etc. This programme was about something else. We organised workshops and meetings with international students and employees to find out what services could be improved at Tilburg University and, based on these discussions, started several projects under four core domains: language, culture, integration, and services.

Language

  1. We invested in Dutch language courses so there would be no waiting lists. We wanted to make sure that students interested in learning Dutch would be able to do so.
  2. Improving English proficiency was imperative. Our Language Center developed various assessments for different positions and we made it mandatory for all personnel to take an English Language proficiency assessment. After some initial resistance, almost 2000 employees took the assessment. A final recommendation goes to the employee and their manager to discuss if and what type of training is required.
  3. At the start of the project, information was communicated through printed media. Now, most of it is online. We looked into how we communicated with our students and employees. In the past, schools gave information in Dutch to Dutch students enrolled in English-taught programmes, which was a waste of time and money. Now, all communication is either in both Dutch and English or only in English.
  4. Signage on campus was a bit of a mess at the beginning of the programme. We now use ‘Tilburg University’ and only the English names of the different schools, departments, and buildings. This avoids mixed use of Dutch and English and saves us from printing official paper in two languages. At first, there was a lot of resistance, but now nobody knows any better.

Culture

In meetings with students and employees, it became clear that investing in language is not enough –we needed to create cultural awareness.

  1. With funding, we were able to hire specialists in intercultural training to work with students, supporting staff, and teachers. Among other things, we provided tailor-made training, we made training mandatory for all outgoing exchange students, and trained academic staff in various English-taught programmes.

Integration

Integration is a recurring issue when interviewing international students and it turned out to be a major issue on the International Student Barometer feedback we received at the beginning of the programme.

  1. We found out that academic staff involved in English-taught programmes did not get involved when students organised themselves for group work. Students with the same cultural background stuck together, so we made it mandatory that groups should be mixed. In this way, students could learn from each other and staff could benefit as well.
  2. Integration should start from the moment the student arrives on campus. In the past, it was common to organise a very popular Introduction week for all new Dutch students and a separate Welcome Week for all new international students. By doing so, how could we expect that they start integrating a week later when classes start? Of course that did not happen. So I suggested we combined the two introduction weeks. You can imagine the resistance but I was able to convince the leadership of the institution that a different set up would solve many issues. This August (2015) it will be the fourth time that the Tilburg Orientation Programme will be held: a programme where 3000 students from all over the country and the world are welcomed by the Rector of the university and by the mayor of the city of Tilburg. Now, this is seen as the most natural way of welcoming all our new students.

Services

During the course of the programme I noticed that, working on this programme, we did not only improve services for our international staff and students, but also for the Dutch community on campus. They benefit from the improvements. We started with an inventory of the accessibility of all services for (international) students and employees, and asked them for their opinion and experiences. We implemented a few changes over the years as a result of the programme:

  1. Longer opening hours for the university library and sports centre, especially during evenings, weekends and during typical Dutch holidays when international students continue their studies and also would like to sport. This was not only appreciated by the international community but also by the Dutch.
  2. Catering services: the typical Dutch cheese sandwich with milk has almost disappeared. In just a few years, the variety of choices in the various restaurants has changed from standard Dutch offerings to Halal, Mediterranean, Eastern, Starbucks, Subway, etc.

Looking back

Research shows that students and staff value the changes and improvements we were able to make over the years. We need to continue to monitor these changes and improvements. Furthermore, there is a huge acceptance of the use of English. Clearly, all students and staff profited from the changes, not only the international community. Internationalising the campus is constant change process. We continue to look at the services we provide as an institution, and we have created awareness of rethinking the services. There are now more, new, better and different services because of the changes in expectations from students and staff.

A programme like this requires long-term commitment; change takes time. What has helped is the integrated approach: it should not just be a project or programme under the umbrella of the international office. We knew there would be resistance – at all levels. We dealt with it, we moved on and focused on those who supported the idea. Most importantly, we made sure the programme was supported by the leadership of the institution. Without their support, change would never have happened.

Hans-Georg van Liempd is Managing Director of the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Tilburg University, Netherlands. He is also a past President of the EAIE.