Exploring sustainable internationalisation strategies for North American institutions

As North American universities lean toward internationalisation, they can learn from the experiences of their international peers such as the UK and Australia

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10 Apr 2024
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Campuses in North America are much less internationalised compared to their UK and Australian peers, said Matt Durnin, principal at Nous Group Toronto in a Times Higher Education webinar, held in partnership with Nous Group. The webinar discussed the lessons North American institutions can draw from their international peers on internationalisation, the need for sustainable revenue models and the intensifying competition among global study destinations for international students. 

Declining or stagnant public funding in many countries forces universities to diversify their revenue streams – international student revenue being a key source. However, since the Covid-19 pandemic, the sector has also witnessed students shifting their attention toward regional study destinations outside of the major academic hubs, according to a survey by New Oriental, a private educational services provider in China.

“One of the challenges we have is that student behaviours are changing,” said David Pilsbury, chief development officer at Oxford International Education Group. “The response to managing the volatility that we are seeing in markets is to diversify and to become more sophisticated, more insightful and to get more data and expertise.”

The panel discussed international student mobility trends and the challenges of internationalisation in North America. Joe Stokes, university registrar and assistant vice-president of international at Ontario Tech University said that while the increase in student mobility is likely to continue, it may shift toward other English-speaking study destinations such as Ireland and non-English-speaking study destinations.

Work opportunities and access barriers can pose competitive disadvantages for North American institutions, said Jessica Sandberg, dean of international enrolment at Duke Kunshan University, discussing the biggest challenges facing US institutions in their internationalisation efforts. “The other element is the affordability gap, which is the gap between higher education institutions with capacity for enrolment versus the students that are very eager to fill those seats.” 

“[Institutions in Canada] tend to see [themselves] as a public good and that can sometimes detract from partnerships and working with private entities,” said Stokes. “That legacy has hindered us from being nimble and being able to explore relationships that can be both thoughtful and have reciprocal value on both ends.”

Durnin pointed out that the extent of engagement with private providers and commercial partners is a significant distinction between North American institutions and their counterparts in the UK and Australia. North American universities tend to rely less on education agents compared with institutions in these countries. However, to meet their international student recruitment objectives, institutions must establish effective partnerships with private providers or build the capacity internally, which can be expensive, said Pilsbury.

“I see quite a lot among my American peers that there is still a distaste for working with commercial partners,” said Sandberg, referring to how US institutions that work with educational agents hesitate to disclose such partnerships. “That’s an area that we could be borrowing more from others – to have best practices in place, to have more transparency and structure around how we use and engage with private actors so that it is all visible and above board.” 

The panel also discussed transnational education (TNE) models as a potential avenue for sustainable revenue generation and international student recruitment. Sandberg warned that institutions should approach TNE more as an investment in sustainability than an immediate means of revenue. “I think we have to be cautious thinking of TNE as a revenue generator,” said Sandberg. “There will continue to be opportunities for partnerships that may open up a new pipeline for students and address some of the cost barriers.”

“TNE’s time is coming,” Pilsbury said. “But it’s not for every institution. You need to establish what you want to achieve as an institution and then set about achieving that. It’s not the same for everybody.”

The panel:

  • Matt Durnin, principal, Nous Group Toronto 
  • David Pilsbury, chief development officer, Oxford International Education Group
  • Sreethu Sajeev, branded content deputy editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Jessica Sandberg, dean of international enrolment, Duke Kunshan University
  • Joe Stokes, university registrar and assistant vice-president of international, Ontario Tech University

Find out more about Nous Group.

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