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Reinventing international higher education

by Dr Vicky Lewis | May 5, 2020 | Strategy & Transformation

Halpin Fellow Dr. Vicky Lewis joined the annual International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) in March and April, which was delivered online due to Covid-19 restrictions. In this blog, she shares the key themes that emerged from the conference:

It’s clear that international higher education needs to reinvent itself for the post-Covid era, but where does the sector begin? There were three prominent areas at the IHEF worth highlighting for further debate:

1. The Greening of International Strategies

Ailsa Lamont (Founder, Pomegranate Global) observed that international higher education is, in a way, a fossil fuel industry. Just one return flight between Beijing and London emits 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Not surprising then that ETH Zurich calculated that international travel accounts for 50% of their university’s emissions. The international education business model that we all know is primarily to fly around the world and encourage others to do so. There is a fixation on mobility.

The climate emergency was already prompting HEIs to challenge this model and the Covid-19 crisis is now providing an opportunity to press the reset button. It is highlighting less carbon-heavy ways of working: remote student recruitment, virtual meetings, online conferences and alternative ways of teaching and learning.

So, what scale of staff and student mobility is acceptable in a carbon-constrained world? It would be counter-productive to cut back completely, as our universities are inherently international institutions, but it is still important to challenge ourselves to achieve some of the same outcomes via alternative means.

Although institutional leadership and commitment to this are essential, International Officers are well-placed to play an advocacy role and work hand-in-hand with Sustainability Officers.

2. The Mainstreaming of Transnational Education

Janet Ilieva (Founder, Education Insight) had been commissioned by UUK International to analyse patterns of global mobility between 2010 and 2017 and to suggest what this might mean for the future.

She found a distinction between global mobility and in-region mobility. As more countries become international education hubs, there is a growing trend towards regional mobility. So more than half of mobile students now stay within their region. The Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate this, with many students staying closer to home. Where students do study elsewhere, they may prefer to do so for shorter periods. And there will be a greater emphasis on both flexible study options (not being locked into a single location for the whole course) and affordability.

This means that universities wanting to engage with this growing group of students need to be active in their preferred location, developing transnational education partnerships with local institutions. Ilieva argued that this could be the start of TNE ‘going mainstream’, with particular emphasis on collaborative relationships leading to dual, joint or multiple degrees.

Elsewhere in the conference, Professor Jenny Lee (University of Arizona) observed that TNE has traditionally been the ‘little sister’ within international higher education, but she agreed that now is the time to realise its vast potential.

She argued that reliance on physical mobility is the biggest risk that universities have taken, not least because it focuses too much on a very narrow group of mobile students. There is a strong case for TNE as a mechanism for helping to build capacity in countries with expanding populations where HE can’t currently meet demand. The importance of genuine partnership (stripped of any neo-colonialist connotations) was also stressed.

3. Prioritising Supportive International Relationships

The importance of partners having well-aligned agendas, underpinned by shared values and missions, was highlighted by Professor Catherine Montgomery (Durham University). She urged those responsible for TNE operations to consider local communities and engage fully with them, so that it results in robust region-to-region relationships rather than being limited to institutions alone.

Professor Anton Muscatelli (University of Glasgow) suggested that the quality of an institution’s global relationships will be an important factor in its post-Covid recovery. And Ajit Rangnekar (Research and Innovation Circle of Hyderabad) noted that no country is capable of managing a crisis like Covid-19 by itself. Global collaboration is essential, not least to provide a much larger pool of talent to tackle the challenges it brings. He argued that Covid-19 has brought an opportunity to truly democratise higher education.


There was a broad consensus that, despite the dire predictions of the impact on higher education of the current crisis (and associated global recession), there are some opportunities too.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis will broaden what universities can offer and allow them to reach a wider pool of students via online and blended learning. Developments such as climate action, new TNE models and stronger global collaboration, which were already gaining momentum before the pandemic struck, are likely to accelerate. Covid-19 has provided a trigger for progress that might otherwise have taken decades.

Unfortunately, not every institution will be able to take advantage of these opportunities. Some will be so caught up in immediate challenges or hampered by financial limitations, that they will find it difficult to step back and plan for the longer term. However, those that succeed in taking a long view will be in the best place to reinvent themselves for a world where – in the words of Professor Shearer West from the University of Nottingham – global fluency and connections will be more important than ever.