Free academics to deliver internationalisation, says scholar

‘Strategic entrepreneurs’ among staff can develop successful cross-border partnerships, argues Northumbria lecturer

January 19, 2016
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In your own way: allowing staff flexibility to implement a strategy increases the odds of success, argues Alison Pearce

Post-92 institutions should give academics more flexibility and support to devise their own methods of internationalisation without the restrictions of detailed commercial targets, a scholar has claimed.

Alison Pearce, senior lecturer in strategic management and international business at Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School, has developed a theory to increase the effectiveness of student and staff mobility and international research partnerships at younger universities, where, she said, academics typically face greater teaching and administrative demands than those at more traditional research-led institutions.

She said that many “new” universities are “entirely focused on commercial aspects of bringing in fee-paying students and franchising programmes”, to the neglect of the “softer side of internationalisation”, involving aspects such as “cross-cultural cooperation”.

She suggested that these institutions should develop a broad strategy around internationalisation – for example, to build more international research partnerships – and then seek out “strategic entrepreneurs” within the university to “operate it how they see fit”.

“The original definition of entrepreneurship is about doing new things in new ways,” she told Times Higher Education. “If you think about entrepreneurship in very broad terms, then huge numbers of academics are very entrepreneurial. [Universities] can use this entrepreneurial preference of academics – that is, academic freedom – to encourage them and facilitate them to be internationally mobile. A strategic entrepreneur uses these skills to achieve the strategy of the university.”

She added: “If you give them the flexibility to implement a strategy the way that they see fit, then you’re much more likely to be successful because you’re appealing to people’s values and skills and they have the freedom and motivation to do what they want.”

Dr Pearce said that this approach minimises the “blame culture” that can arise between senior management teams and academics when strategies fail. Key to it is “building some slack into the organisation” so that academics’ time is “not totally managed” and “rewarding staff for behaving in this way rather than punishing them for not hitting targets”.

However, she added, it was important to have an “opt-in” approach that did not force academics to engage in internationalisation.

After completing her research, Dr Pearce said, she was appointed to lead a university-wide initiative that applies her approach in the aim of building international staff mobility at Northumbria. The university has also set up a research cluster on strategic entrepreneurship leadership.

She said that her plan is for the institution to ask academics to help Northumbria deliver a specific strategy in a specific region of the world and for academics to be given more financial support or time to facilitate their own types of internationalisation.

“There is a general recognition that the university has very low levels of staff mobility,” she said. “Rather than asking the university for a big budget for internationalisation, my proposal is to build slack and reward and deliver staff mobility that way.”

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