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What’s on the menu for post-pandemic international strategies?

  • 12 May 2021
  • By Vicky Lewis

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Vicky Lewis, Founder of Vicky Lewis Consulting. She is author of a research-based report UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink? You can find Vicky on Twitter @DrVickyLewis.

As the UK emerges from the worst of the pandemic, people are daring to think about future plans. For higher education institutions, this means engaging in strategic thinking that considers a radically altered global context and changing patterns of stakeholder demand and expectations.

What are the options for post-pandemic international strategies?

Option 1: Carry on much as before.

Option 2: Review and adjust existing strategy.

Option 3: Engage in a fundamental rethink.

Before looking at what may need to change, how can the current generation of international strategies be characterised?

A study of 134 strategic plans (all current in late 2020, all from Universities UK member institutions) shows that in 76 per cent the global dimension is prominent. It is not treated as separate from institutional strategy, but an integral part of what makes the university what it is. For many institutions, global engagement and perspectives enhance and enrich all core areas of university mission from teaching, learning and the student experience to research and innovation and service to society.

It is noticeable that recently published strategies (with start dates of 2019 or 2020) tend to be more values-led. The rhetoric is about making a valuable global contribution. Some place social responsibility or sustainability centre stage; some show how they will support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; some aspire to be accessible and inclusive on a global scale.

The rhetoric has moved on from the days, not so long ago, when the primary international focus within strategies was on recruitment of non-EU students to UK campuses.

But some things have stayed the same. At a sector level, where Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are included in public-facing strategic plans (around 40 per cent of cases), the most common measure of international success is international student enrolments. Looking only at the relatively small number of strategic plans published in 2020, the most frequent international KPI is global league table position.

There appears to be a disconnect between what universities say is important to them – making the world a better place – and the metrics they use, which relate more to institutional profile-building, income and reach. There are many reasons why this may be so.

It may betray an underlying world view that does not align with the rhetoric. It may reflect a lack of imagination when it comes to tracking progress in global engagement. It may suggest a desire to look good in relation to peer institutions rather than a genuine effort to improve performance and enhance impact. Or it may simply reflect the challenge of operating within a competitive context where institution-building is better rewarded than social contribution.

Whichever it is, it results in some mildly schizophrenic strategies which tend to measure international success in similar ways, thus diluting any differentiation and distinctiveness that they aspire to.

The global pandemic has caused many of us to reprioritise what is important to us. It has shifted the higher education sector’s priorities in relation to a range of issues: from climate action to online learning. We have seen first-hand how international research collaboration is crucial to addressing global challenges. Increased emphasis is being placed on universities’ contribution to the global common good, their role in shaping a democratic, sustainable and equitable post-COVID world and their involvement in the economic recovery.

Let us go back to the three options for the post-pandemic generation of global engagement strategies.

Option 1: Carry on much as before

Carrying on as before was not even a sensible option pre-pandemic. COVID-19 may have pressed home the dangers of overreliance on international student fee income, but most institutions were already concerned about their dependence on individual countries (usually China). The last year has shown that factors from travel restrictions to geopolitical tensions make changes in our approach to international engagement essential.

Option 2: Review and adjust existing strategy

Reviewing and adjusting an existing strategy may be an option for the most forward-thinking institutions: those which have recently had a thorough consultation on their global engagement priorities. For most, tweaking will not be enough.

Option 3: Engage in a fundamental rethink

For the majority of institutions, it would be a wasted opportunity not to engage in a fundamental rethink.

During the pandemic, the number of virtual events and articles discussing the future of international higher education engagement has rocketed. However, the fresh ideas which excite academics and practitioners when shared in these fora often get diluted – or dropped altogether – when institutional strategies are developed. Is now the time to embrace some of the more far-reaching changes that could take an institution’s global engagement in new and distinctive directions?

Interviews with 12 senior sector stakeholders with an interest in international strategy, supplemented by insights from recent conferences, webinars and publications, yielded some recurring – and interrelated – themes.

UK universities are urged to consider carefully:

Further themes revolved around alternative operating practices and new ways of measuring success, such as:

If UK higher education institutions miss this golden opportunity to rethink their strategies for global engagement, it is likely to come back to bite them. It is also likely to result in a higher education sector which is less diverse than it could be.

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  1. Rohit says:

    Good thought provoking article, I would say option is no more an option but I totally agree with you on Option 3: Engage in a fundamental rethink.

  2. Laura says:

    Great article! Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the phrase “some mildly schizophrenic strategies” being used – it’s a small thing but I find that use of languaget does contribute to a lot of misconceptions and negative stereotypes of schizophrenia. Probably easier to just say what you actually mean e.g “contradictory strategies” etc

  3. I’m glad you like the article. And thank you for making the point about language, Laura. I’ll use the term ‘contradictory’ in future. I appreciate what you’re saying.

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