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25 years in international Higher Education. What’s changed?

by Dr Vicky Lewis | Mar 19, 2019 | News

I realised recently that 2019 marks my 25th year in international higher education. This made me pause to reflect on what has changed over that period.

This article highlights three key changes – one at individual/operational unit level, one at organisational level and one at national/international level – and speculate briefly on what the future looks like. Observations are based mainly on the UK context, but some elements may resonate in other parts of the world.

Approaches to international engagement have become more professional
The last 25 years have seen a marked professionalisation of International Office roles and operating practice. There are clearly demarcated functions, with career paths and opportunities for professional development. It isn’t just assumed that, if you work in an International Office, you can turn your hand to anything vaguely ‘international’.

Decisions are driven more by insight, market intelligence, data and evidence – and less by gut feel. In the early days, before international student recruiters really had regional specialisms, some people seemed to have landed themselves a plum role as ‘international officer for small islands in the sun’. They would pop up seemingly randomly in Mauritius, Cyprus or Penang.

Now, there is robust strategy behind international engagement plans, with expenditure needing to be justified, business cases made and return on investment measured.

In late 2016, I interviewed eight Senior International Officers (those in Vice-President, Director, Head of Office roles) from several different countries for an article published in the European Association for International Education’s Forum magazine on ‘the shifting profile of the modern international officer’.

Their stories tended to be a variation on my own (studied languages, spent time overseas, liked building intercultural relationships, fell by chance into an International Office role and worked their way up). They observed that, in future, they foresee ever greater professionalisation, with specialist roles requiring regional knowledge, geo-political nous, specific skillsets and the ability to straddle cultures.

Institutional understanding of internationalisation has broadened and deepened

Another major change is the integration of an international ethos across entire institutions, rather than ‘responsibility for international’ being vested within an International Office silo.

An academic colleague, whom I interviewed in the early 2000s, commented that the aspiration of any International Office should be to ‘do itself out of a job’. In other words to make itself redundant because an international perspective has become fully embedded in the thinking and actions of every single member of staff, and in every strategy and process.

When I conducted a national survey of UK HEIs in 2005, all respondent institutions had an international student recruitment strategy but far fewer had a broad internationalisation strategy. For many, internationalisation was equated to international student recruitment, with lip service paid to other activity strands.

Since then, there has been increasing understanding that attracting international students is just one small element of internationalisation. Most UK HEIs have recognised that having (and fostering) a global outlook is an important part of being a university on multiple levels. This has increasingly been reflected in strategy and infrastructure.

Institutional strategies started to include an explicit international dimension and were often supported by a dedicated internationalisation strategy. Other supporting strategies (e.g. Learning and Teaching; Student Experience; HR; Marketing) began to adopt a more global perspective. Many more Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International/Global Experience) posts were created to lead internationalisation efforts, foster an international ethos and coordinate activity across all functions.

Certain functions that used to sit firmly within the International Office (e.g. international student support; international exchanges; international marketing and student recruitment) were gradually brought into the mainstream. They were aligned more closely with (or, in many cases, absorbed into) other relevant professional services, recognising the benefits of inclusivity and embeddedness over segregation and silo working.

But there is another layer to consider. Concerns exist not just about whether internationalisation is fully integrated, but whether the type of internationalisation being pursued is ethical and sustainable (for all concerned). That is a question that only a few UK institutions are beginning to grapple with, but is likely to come under increasing scrutiny.

The external context has become increasingly challenging

It is tempting to look back with rose-tinted spectacles to the time when the UK was seen as an outward-looking nation and government policies supported a widely held perception that students and staff from beyond our islands would be welcomed with open arms.

From 1994/95 to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, international student enrolments grew and grew (despite the Asian financial crisis of 1997, despite the SARS and bird flu outbreaks of the early 2000s). Tony Blair’s 1999 Prime Minister’s Initiative provided an additional boost and sent out positive signals to the rest of the world.

The Post-study work route (PSW) was introduced in 2004, making the UK an even more attractive destination – until the 2010 election when the aim to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ was positioned as the centrepiece of UK migration policy. Immigration requirements started to tighten in 2011 and PSW was closed in 2012. There was a refusal to consider removing international students from the net migration target.

Growth slowed drastically and damage has been further exacerbated since the Brexit referendum campaign. The rhetoric of the Leave campaign and large swathes of the media left the UK looking insular and xenophobic.

HEIs and individuals working in them have expended a huge amount of energy and effort trying to counteract these impressions. Although frustrating, this has perhaps been good for us.

It could be argued that we had become complacent about our ability to attract overseas talent. That we took for granted other countries’ interest in partnering with us. That we were concerned only about maximising income. That it was all take and no give.

Recently, UK institutions have had to do some soul-searching about different ways to ‘be international’. For example, there is much greater focus (at institutional and national level) on the outward mobility of domestic students.

The critical ‘international’ question for leaders within the UK HE sector over past decades tended to be ‘how do we make the UK as attractive as possible for international students?’. Some are now seriously addressing another question: ‘how do we equip our domestic graduates to thrive in a world where they constantly need to engage across cultural boundaries?’

Perhaps our recent challenges as a sector will force this higher up the agenda at more institutions? (Or perhaps financial constraints post-Augar will send us scuttling back to a fixation on maximising income from international student fees?)

And the next 25 years?

At the time of writing (early March 2019), it’s difficult to know where we’ll be next month, let alone in 25 years’ time.

I hope that, over coming years, we will critically engage with the ‘why’ of internationalisation (perhaps embracing the continental European perspective that it is ultimately about enhancing quality), question our practice from an ethical and sustainability point of view and remember that the benefits of internationalisation should be felt by all stakeholders.

If, in 25 years’ time, it is second nature to consider the global implications of our decision-making without prompting, we’ll be further ahead than we are today.

Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership – a leading higher education management consultancy. Follow us on LinkedIn for more insight, news and comment. This article is a shortened version of one first published here.