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Future of University Global Engagement Strategies

  • 14 October 2019
  • By Vincenzo Raimo

This blog was kindly contributed by Vincenzo Raimo, Visiting Fellow in the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading and Adjunct Professor of Global Higher Education at the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology.

In 1997, I wrote an opinion piece for the Times Higher Education titled ‘Golden age of the don not entirely a relic’ in which I described the privileged position of universities in the UK, as I saw it, at that time. In the 20 years that have passed, there’s been a huge amount of change, but despite my predictions and our moans and complaints as a sector, we’ve actually had it really very good, especially in comparison to most other parts of the public sector; funding increases, capital grants towards the costs of research facilities and private investment in university facilities have enabled universities to expand student access, grow their research output and increase staffing.

In many ways, we’ve been riding a wave through a Golden Age, even if we didn’t quite realise or appreciate it at the time.

Throughout this period, many universities have also been prepared to invest in international developments: international offices developing and expanding and UK university campuses and other presences opening in Asia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. Pro Vice-Chancellor’s for Internationalisation (PVCi), unheard of, or at least uncommon 20 years ago, are now ten a penny. And most important of all, we’ve seen the sector professionalise significant aspects of its international work and meet the challenge posed in the Gillian Report to move on from the amateurish approach he found in most of our institutions in 2000.

We’ve professionalised and we’ve grown our international work because we’ve had to, to meet the growing opportunities available to us internationally, as well as to counter some of the challenges we’ve faced at home, not least of which has been the unwelcoming stance taken by UK Governments since 2010 to international students aspiring to study in the UK.

We’re living in very different times today: the domestic demographic dip has hit the student growth assumptions built into most university financial plans; growing competition from within and outside of the UK has seen an escalation in marketing and recruitment costs reducing the margin on tuition fee income; and with fixed fees for the majority of our students, average fee income is eroding against rising costs. And this is all before taking account of any Brexit impact, the cost of pension contribution increases or even reduced domestic undergraduate tuition fees, seemingly back on the agenda once again last week.

If ever there was a Golden Age it has firmly come to a halt, and pretty starkly so. But these very uncertainties should be exactly why internationalisation or global engagement should be at the top of our university agendas rather than being challenged by increasing short-termism. Despite the internationalisation rhetoric of some of our university leaders, the approach of many of our universities to the benefits of internationalisation remain predominantly one dimensional. I am increasingly concerned that our current and potential future partners across the world are starting to see through us.

International Directors and PVCi’s need to develop a call to action to meet the opportunity to help shape the future of global higher education and help secure the longer-term future of our institutions.

Unless our universities truly grasp the wider benefits of internationalisation, being prepared to take the long-term view rather than seeing internationalisation through the lens of short-term income generation, they will become weaker, failing students, failing staff and failing the wider communities in which they are based, jeopardising future success.

So, where should we go from here? First, we need to provide university executives and their governing bodies with the evidence to back our claims about the benefits of internationalisation, not just in terms of income from student recruitment, but also that outward student mobility leads to happier students with improved degree outcomes and better and future opportunities.

We also need to persuade the league table developers to embrace internationalisation and to include factors such as outward mobility in league table assessments, and to include universities’ global presences rather than just their UK bases in the make-up of league tables. It is truly bizarre that the Times Higher Education’s International Outlook Ranking only assesses the inward mobility of students while failing to count how many domestic students spend time studying and or working abroad as part of the degree studies. In addition, for our multinationally based universities, it only assesses their UK bases and ignores their international presences. The THE International Outlook measure is hardly international in its own outlook.

And maybe we need a Global Engagement Framework (GEF) to sit alongside REF and TEF. A GEF which measures universities’ real global outlook and assesses what universities do, rather than what they say they do: to internationalise the domestic student experience; to increase the number of students learning another language; about the mobility of staff and students; and about the diversity of university populations.

I make these suggestions not because I like league tables, or because I want my colleagues to spend even more time recording and describing our achievements through bureaucratic exercises rather than doing the work we need to support our students and staff to achieve success, but because we know that league tables and REF and TEF get attention and that they change behaviours.


  1. I agree with your observations, Enzo. I’ve also witnessed the evolution of UK HEI strategies over the decades – from International (Recruitment) Strategy to Internationalisation Strategy (more comprehensive, but still essentially inward-facing) to the more outward-looking Global Engagement Strategy. As you say, there is often a mismatch between rhetoric and reality. Being charitable, sometimes this is just a time lag – the strategy articulates the aspiration but the implementation takes a while to catch up. However, I accept your point that more concerted and practical efforts need to be made in order to shake the perception of the UK as a nation focused on the narrow financial benefits of internationalisation. You’ll be aware of the recent EAIE survey that found that 42% of UK respondents cited ‘financial benefits’ as a main goal of internationalisation (compared to 12% across the EHEA as a whole). As you suggest, persuading league table compilers to use a broader set of more appropriate measures to judge institutional internationalisation would be step forward.

  2. Do we really need a GEF?

    The achievements of a university’s international endeavours are set by their strategic objectives and I suspect will not be captured sufficiently by yet another league table. For example, in the case of Heriot-Watt how might I measure outward mobility from 5 locations from 3 country bases? League tables are so locked into UK metrics it is often hard to express the true nature of our own institution. Global engagement at very many levels will continue to be critical to the success and relevance of universities.

    Each university needs to sort out its priories and approach in this regard. At Heriot-Watt we strive to value the student experience and staff needs as the central driver of our own strategy – as an inherently international organisation (when viewed from the UK over 70% student registrations are non UK but only about 30% of our students are resident in UK). This requires a complete break away from the notion of having ‘branch campuses’ (what an old model and old language that is!) but ensuring more global integration and genuine commitment for success to the communities at all locations. So any GEF would need to guard against old fashioned UK centric language and assumptions.

    It’s true to say that as long as many UK universities operate the ‘old colonial model ‘ of ensuring magnetic adhesion of staff, research and resource to the UK institution and only undertaking ‘paid to do’ international projects little will change.

    Fortunately this is not the only pathway open to students who will be looking not only for value but, critically, to make their own impact on a global scale through the opportunity to study in different global communities at universities such as Heriot-Watt.

    Ultimately the measures to watch will be employability of the students , student happiness and motivation, and the effective global volunteering and research impact of the whole university community.

  3. A great commentary Enzo, on how far we have come! Also how much further we must travel to deliver true internationalisation with our HEIs. International Graduate Outcomes, mapping, tracking & improving will be a crucial part of the puzzle. This is not just because it is the right thing to do (institutions spend millions recruiting international students & next to nothing on supporting them into work) but because international students will demand it.
    Gavin Williamson has already highlighted to the OfS deficiencies in data collection & a lack of focus on international student employability. Those institutions that invest in International Graduate Outcomes, will not only fulfil ambitions regarding internationalisation but also recruit more students. A win win!

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