The ingredients for successful internationalisation

The keys to success include aligning it with academic missions and having an institution-wide approach, say Anna-Malin Sandström and Ross Hudson 

April 28, 2019
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Higher education professionals are under increasing pressure to provide evidence of the impact of internationalisation on the sector and wider society.

Data gathered from the 2,317 respondents at 1,292 higher education institutions (HEIs) in 45 European countries who partook in the second edition of the European Association for International Education’s (EAIE) survey, the EAIE Barometer: Internationalisation in Europe, provide a unique vantage point from which to look for answers. 

Based on the survey responses, nine signposts for success in internationalisation stood out, as detailed in the recently launched report, EAIE Barometer: Signposts of success. 

These signposts correlated with three identified proxies for success: reported progress in strategic priority activities; perceived level of internationalisation at the institution compared with others in the country; and optimism about the future of internationalisation at the institution. Here we’ll examine three of these nine signposts for success. 

The positive effect of aligning with the academic mission

The reasons why an HEI pursues internationalisation seem to have a bearing on the HEI’s perception of success. Internationalising for reasons aligned with the mission of the university – teaching and research – coincide with respondents feeling somewhat more confident about the current and future state of internationalisation at their HEI. 

Internationalising to enhance the third mission of the university – societal impact – did not show a clear relationship with the perception of success. This can perhaps be expected, as it has often been cited that the impact of internationalisation on society has long been overlooked in internationalisation efforts. 

The negative impact of focusing on financial benefits 

Internationalisation goals can have a negative impact. Staff at HEIs that internationalise for financial benefits were more likely to see their institution as less advanced in internationalisation (19 per cent saying that their HEI was below average, compared with 14 per cent in the total sample) and were less optimistic about the future of internationalisation at their HEI (71 per cent being optimistic compared with 81 per cent in the total sample). 

In academic environments, being driven by commercial factors is often seen as unwelcome, and even at odds with the ethos of education itself. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that professionals working in such an institutional environment appear less positive and optimistic about internationalisation at their HEIs.

Interestingly, no clear patterns emerged when comparing the reasons for internationalising with progress in achieving the strategic priorities, indicating that rationales could affect confidence and self-image more than concrete achievements. 

The advantage of a mainstreamed collaborative structure 

In their busy day jobs most professionals don’t wrestle with the “why”, but focus on the more practical “how” of internationalisation. Professionals working at HEIs that have a broad internationalisation offering – such as undertaking 10 or more internationalisation activities –  were more prone to perceive their institution as being above average in internationalisation when compared with other HEIs in their country, and were also more likely to have confidence in the future of internationalisation at their institution. 

What is more striking is that staff at HEIs with a broad internationalisation portfolio were also on the whole more likely to indicate that their HEI had progressed in their strategic priority activities. 

A varied internationalisation portfolio does not appear to dilute focus it seems, yet further investigation is needed to understand the mechanisms at play. 

When developing the “why” and implementing the “what”, adequate structures and staff resources are needed. Especially since lack of commitment to internationalisation and lack of institutional structure/leadership stood out as key internal challenges of internationalisation in the report. 

Indeed, respondents at HEIs where internationalisation was the non-coordinated initiative of individuals were less positive about the current level and the future prospects of internationalisation at their institution (19 per cent above average compared with 41 per cent in the total sample and 54 per cent positive compared to 81 per cent in the total sample, respectively). 

The respondents who on average scored highest on the three success proxies worked at HEIs with multiple offices working in coordination on internationalisation, showing that internationalisation can best be worked on in collaboration across the institution. 

In conclusion, it seems that having a collaborative mainstreamed structure, implementing an extensive internationalisation portfolio, and pursuing internationalisation for reasons beyond financial benefits fosters greater confidence in these activities among professionals and paves the way for sustainable and impactful internationalisation of higher education. 

Anna-Malin Sandström is policy officer at EAIE and Ross Hudson is the senior knowledge officer at EAIE. They are authors of the report EAIE Barometer: Signposts of success.

Academics and university leaders will discuss how universities will internationalise and collaborate over the next 20 years at Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, which is taking place at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada, from 4-6 June.

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