“Internationalisation needs to be framed in terms of valuing other cultures and perspectives: in effect, undergoing its own decolonisation process.” (Lewis 2021, p.45)

The above quotation is drawn from a series of interviews I conducted in early 2021 with senior UK stakeholders in the field of higher education internationalisation. Although different perspectives were shared by other interviewees, this broad idea was echoed by several.

It caused me to reflect on what a decolonial approach to HE internationalisation might look like and what would need to change in order to make it possible in a UK context.

Decolonisation of the curriculum is fine – but don’t touch our international strategy!

Within UK HE, there seems to be widespread (though by no means universal) acceptance that decolonising the curriculum is a positive development. It is framed as being about expanding horizons, challenging assumptions, broadening perspectives and recognising inequities: all important features of a university education.

Some institutions go further than the curriculum and explore measures to decolonise the institution in other ways. This is not ‘just’ about statues and the naming of buildings. There are natural intersections with anti-racism, EDI, social justice and other themes that many students care deeply about and which are therefore gradually becoming more integrated into these universities’ policies and mindsets.

However, there’s a key area of activity, which is important to the majority of institutions, where decolonising approaches are often brushed under the carpet: international engagement.

There is a growing body of academic literature on decolonial internationalisation, which seeks to challenge Western / ‘Global North’ / Anglocentric assumptions and approaches. Concerns about the dominance of Western paradigms for internationalisation and the ignoring (or even silencing) of non-Western voices are regularly shared in publications such as University World News.

But it seems that the commercially driven model of internationalisation is so embedded in UK HE that these debates barely touch institutional practice. A truly decolonial approach to international engagement seems a bridge too far.

There are many reasons why this is so. International student tuition fees cross-subsidise research and other areas, so any radical change risks upsetting the financial apple cart. It might require different approaches to measuring ‘return on investment’: ones that encompass ‘global common good’ returns as well as direct financial ones. Issues such as the ethics of brain drain and the nature of North-South partnerships are complex and context-dependent. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them and stick to the status quo.

What do institutional strategies have to say?

In my review of UK HEI strategic plans and global engagement strategies, I found that remarkably few make explicit reference to decolonisation. Some do, however, express refreshing perspectives without using that term.

UCL’s Global Engagement strategy, quoting Adam Habib (at the time Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, now Director of SOAS), states that ‘we want to apply our strengths “in a way that supports the global academy of commons rather than simply advancing the individual aspirations of institutions”’.

 The University of Winchester’s strategy majors on sustainability and social justice, stating that ‘we are committed to working globally to fight for equality, integrity and justice’.

The King’s Internationalisation Strategy is explicit about changing the lens through which the world is viewed: ‘We envision a community of King’s People – students and staff – who are culturally competent: able to view the world through the eyes of others, including not only people from different regions or nations, but socio-economic backgrounds, races, genders, ages, religions, abilities and more.’

But this is at the strategy level where noble words flow easily. On a purely theoretical level, I’m sure most people would agree that they wouldn’t want their institution’s international strategy to perpetuate colonial models. However, what would a decolonial approach look like in concrete terms, in the context of a UK university?

Some thoughts on decolonising international engagement

I’d like to preface this section with a huge caveat. While I feel comfortable talking about HE internationalisation, I am not an expert in decolonisation. I’m conscious that I may be using the term loosely and leaving out (or oversimplifying) important issues, so I’d welcome critiques to refine these initial thoughts.

The observations below draw on both my research and my professional experience as an international strategy consultant. They seek to frame some different facets of international engagement activity in a new, less colonial manner.

  • Research and partnerships

The way research funding is allocated tends to favour institutions from the ‘Global North’, putting them in the driving seat, even when the global challenges being investigated are ones where institutions in the ‘Global South’ may have more direct experience. UK HEIs need to challenge the nature of their partnerships (UCL talks about ‘partnerships of equivalence’) and work out ways to distribute funding and leadership responsibilities more equitably. Can sustainable partnership models be developed which reduce the risk of brain drain and open the eyes of Western staff and students to the context in which the partner is operating? UK university strategies often talk about making a positive global contribution. How is it decided which countries to engage with and which types of partnership would best support this?

  • International student recruitment and widening access

Many international strategies allude to diversification of the international student body. Often this is about spreading risk (not having all one’s financial eggs in one basket). It may also be about having culturally diverse cohorts, leading to a richer educational experience. However, it’s rarely about recognising the wider inequalities in the world and addressing these. An expansive approach to international scholarships (already embraced by a few institutions) sees them used to diversify the student body in terms not only of nationality but also social and economic background. Some HEIs make proactive efforts to make higher education accessible to refugees. Transnational education and online provision have the potential to broaden access on a global scale.

  • Strategy development and operations

A theme which emerged from my interviews was the need to invite challenge from staff, students and other stakeholders from the ‘Global South’ when developing (and putting into practice) international strategy. It is all too easy to perpetuate traditional (marketised) approaches to international engagement because strategies are determined and approved by those with a particular mindset and type of experience. There are opportunities, some highlighted by the pandemic, to introduce less colonial, more inclusive and less environmentally damaging approaches to international activities. Technology can make many activities – from conferences to open days – more accessible to (at least some) participants in lower income countries. And rethinking International Office operations so that more staff are based on the ground in partner countries can help institutions to move away from the colonialist model where UK-based staff fly in and out of a country, then direct operations from ‘UK HQ’.

Concluding observations

There are many other aspects of international engagement which could be reframed by looking at them through a different lens and taking decisions which are informed by fresh, non-Western perspectives. The question remains in my mind whether UK HEIs are prepared to do more than make tweaks around the edges. Are we so dependent on our international income streams that we cannot allow other (non-commercial) motivations to take centre stage? If that is the case, decolonial internationalisation may just be a pipe dream.

Dr Vicky Lewis is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education strategy. This article draws on a report – UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink? – published by Vicky Lewis Consulting in April 2021.