This article draws on a report – UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink? – published by Vicky Lewis Consulting in April 2021.

Having reviewed 134 UK university strategic plans (all current in late 2020), I’d like to share a number of observations about the profile of global engagement:

  • An international dimension is prominent in 76 per cent of institutional strategies.
  • Recently published strategic plans tend to be more values-led than older ones: many emphasise their institution’s commitment to sustainable development, addressing global challenges, climate action, social justice, and equality, diversity and inclusion.
  • Despite rhetoric about making a positive global contribution, international success still tends to be measured using traditional, profile-building metrics such as international student enrolments or position in global rankings.
  • A number of the strategic plans fall into classic strategy traps, such as not defining the precise challenges the university faces; trying to include all aspects of internationalisation without prioritising; and letting others (e.g., ranking organisations or peer institutions) define success, rather than pursuing what makes them distinctive.

The pandemic has caused us all to step back and consider our priorities. It has offered us a structural break to rethink institutional approaches to internationalisation. Interviews with senior sector stakeholders, supplemented by a review of recent conferences, webinars and publications, suggest a number of key themes that UK higher education institutions should consider as they review their strategies.

One of those themes is ‘Internationalisation for All’, which intersects in interesting ways with the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda.

Internationalisation should, by definition, be inclusive. At its heart is a recognition that all aspects of university mission benefit from the diverse perspectives of students and staff with different cultural backgrounds and experiences. However, synergies between the international office and EDI teams are often overlooked.

What happens when you overlay an institutional commitment to EDI onto your internationalisation strategy?

Equality (and Equity)

Few would dispute that international students and staff at UK universities should have access to the support they need in order to thrive. However, just as is the case with domestic students and staff from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, that support may need to be tailored in order to have the desired impact. For example, specialist employability and careers support is needed to prepare international students for post-graduation employment either in the UK (taking advantage of the new Graduate Immigration Route) or back in their home country.

Similarly, when we look at offering an international or intercultural experience to all students, it is clear that thinking about this solely in terms of studying abroad (or other forms of outbound mobility) largely restricts the opportunity to those who are wealthy and do not have work or caring responsibilities. The pandemic has shown us different ways, often facilitated by digital technology, to make intercultural experiences (including virtual exchange or collaborative international online learning) accessible to all.

Global accessibility can also be enhanced via transnational education programmes delivered online or, with a partner, closer to a student’s home. Making a strategic decision to expand in-country provision in key locations can help the nation or region with capacity building and skills development as well as reducing brain drain. At an individual level, it can open up transformative new opportunities for an international education to less wealthy families.

Diversity

In the context of internationalisation, we are used to aiming for diversity within the student body. We know the benefits that diverse perspectives can bring to the classroom (and to the wider student experience). The need for diversification is reinforced by the desire to reduce risk. Bearing in mind all the factors beyond an institution’s control (from geopolitical tensions to global health crises), it is important not to be over-reliant on a relationship with any single country.

But how far are institutions prepared to go in order to diversify? One of my interviewees pointed out that you have to be deliberate to make this happen, suggesting that universities might ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and allocate a share of the income from international student fees to scholarships. The same person noted that ‘if diversification really is important, scholarships are such a crucial tool. It reinforces the EDI agenda and goals of widening understanding and making a safer world. It is about recognising the wider inequalities in the world and addressing these. It is not wholly altruistic: it would drive more students to the UK in the long run’.

Inclusion

Being genuinely inclusive in the development of global engagement strategy could potentially lead to a much more distinctive strategy, that truly reflects the values of the university and its wider communities.

In the UK, we need to be aware that our approach to internationalisation is informed and constrained by Anglocentric traditions and ‘Global North’ viewpoints. As one interviewee observed, ‘you need to include people from the Global South who can spot problematic notions’. Those leading the strategy should be reflective and actively challenge stereotypes.

The student voice must also be heard and reflected in the strategy (and provide feedback on its implementation) in order for it to be transformative, not just ‘more of the same’.

What next?

There are many other ways in which the EDI and internationalisation agendas can fruitfully intersect. Institutions for whom both are important need to challenge themselves to explore that intersection so that – rather than continuing along their separate tracks – they can be developed in tandem and provide mutual reinforcement.

Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education strategy.