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.