Who killed the international officer?

Who killed the international officer?

Many years of international education have provided a number of positive outcomes of which we are all aware; however, there have also been some negative developments. One such development is the vulnerability of colleagues managing the international office, whose positions are often at risk for a wide variety of reasons. Lack of institutional support, constant turnover of management at the strategic level of universities, the demands of the position and the perception of the role at institutions are only some of the difficulties faced by international officers.

The consequences of such issues often include redundancies, the position being undermined or colleagues moving to other roles with less responsibility. After more than 20 years in international education, we have seen all these developments up close and wondered why the role of international officers seems to be more at risk than that of colleagues at similar responsibility levels in other areas of universities. This autumn, the skill requirements and specific needs of staff involved in international education will be unveiled by the results of the EAIE Barometer. It is a good moment to consider the plight of the international officer.

Introducing the case

In order to start a significant piece of research we decided to ask some experts for their thoughts. Twenty-five colleagues with an average experience of over 21 years were surveyed, their answers providing preliminary insights from across five continents. The initial results indicate that, despite different backgrounds, some problems are universal and others are more related to particular situations.

Looking at the clues

Participants were asked to score the relevancy (0 being ‘Not relevant at all’ and 5 as ‘Very relevant) of eight different assumptions that could describe barriers and difficulties in their role and could, ultimately, result in workplace conflict. The graph below shows an overview of the responses.

There were no substantial differences in the responses according to the geographical origin, although Mediterranean and Latin-American colleagues stressed their lack of participation in the design of international policies. The issue of decentralisation was considered an important point for Northern European colleagues.

Not surprisingly, the comments to the scores provided some interesting insights. One of the most important was that of the recognition given to the international officer and his/her position within the higher education institution hierarchy. Many colleagues consider that successful professional activity and subsequent recognition are not linked and that this can actually create conflict. What are the reasons for this? Often the skills and successes of the international manager are not recognised and rewarded through promotion. Also relevant is the lack of coordination between international offices and other areas of university administration, wherein conflict arises due to a lack of understanding of respective roles. This is also a crucial problem when internationalisation is an integral part of the wider university structure, but the international office has to report to someone with no knowledge of or interest in international activities and developments.

In many cases decentralisation has proven to be a problematic solution as a method for increasing international activities. The lack of linkages between the central and academic structures has been mentioned as a clear origin of conflict. The opposite situation, with a very centralised structure, also represents a problem if the hierarchy of the institution does not allow fluid contact with the management of the university, leaving the international office in ‘no-man’s land’. A good example of this is the university’s involvement in international networks, which is often seen as the responsibility (and interest) of the international office and not of relevance within the wider university landscape.

So who are international officers reporting to? This is a crucial question with no common answer, but it clearly creates conflict. In some cases, where university management is subject to an election process, there are frequent changes in key personnel and often changes in political orientation. In other cases there is a lack of clearly defined reporting procedures to academic positions. Such issues make the position of the international officer vulnerable and more dependent on personal relationships than on professional recognition.

International strategies are very common these days, but are they sufficiently resourced? Or are they only based on student mobility, exchange or recruitment? And more importantly, who decides on the strategies? How realistic are they and to what extent do professionals in the field have input in their development? These were some of the interesting questions that additionally arose.

Is there a way out?

The consequence of all these dysfunctions often represents a mid- to long-term conflict, with outcomes that generally do not help the international officer. For someone who has been working in the field for a number of years, this situation is frustrating and goes against the interest of the institution and the individuals involved. Based on these facts, we are interested in finding a solution to improving the working relationships of international officers.

After gaining some insights into the issue, it’s time to see how relevant these problems are for all professionals working in international education. That is why we would be glad to receive your comments on the matter and would also like to invite you to fill out a questionnaire on the topic. The objective is not only to highlight some of the challenges, but also to find solutions that will improve the vulnerable position of international officers and make our roles easier and better recognised by our institutions. On the longer term, we want to delve more deeply into factors and issues which affect the ability of international officers to succeed in their remits. If you would like to contribute, please send an e-mail to ja.carbonell@kingston.ac.uk and/or laura.ripoll@udg.edu.