Internationalisation is not new to Latin American universities. Even from the early 1990s, numerous public universities from the region started collaborating with US and European universities and agencies to boost student mobility and to develop strategic alliances.
However, it can be argued that most Latin American universities declined the chance to use internationalisation as a catalyst for institutional improvement and innovation. Nowadays, the international dimension is an integral part of many Latin American universities; the importance of internationalisation is highlighted in official documents and institutional plans, with the rationale to prepare students for the global economy and to generate world-class research.
And yet, in the difficult context currently faced by most public Latin American universities, even the most well-intended plans can hit the financial and organisational wall. Some of the main challenges are lack of professional staff for international affairs, inefficient bureaucratic and organisational models, tight budgets and rigid national policies that do not promote comprehensive international projects.
So how does an institution overcome the hurdles and successfully implement a comprehensive and modern internationalisation strategy?
Before even beginning to design an internationalisation strategy, the goal – raising the academic quality in both teaching and research – must be set out and governing bodies and academic communities alike must agree to it.
At the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, one of the largest and oldest public universities in the region, we are in the process of overhauling our internationalisation strategy. Our experience has highlighted some of the crucial issues, and here I focus on two of the main challenges in the hope of providing useful guidance for other institutions.
One challenge is striking the right balance between central policies and decentralised strategies; the other is understanding the importance of being geographically focused.
In 1995, a complete organisational revamp transformed our institution from a centralised entity concentrated in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara into a decentralised university network with campuses in all regions of the state of Jalisco. It was decided at the time that the internationalisation strategy would be overseen at the central level, with the 15 branch campuses having only “scholarship offices”, mainly to handle processes of student and faculty mobility. However, the growth of the university means that this organisational arrangement is no longer feasible.
Therefore, we are now transforming those campus scholarship offices into well-equipped offices for international affairs. The first step in accomplishing this goal is to select and prepare a new generation of administrators and academics to handle cross-border affairs. We then plan to create an academic council of international affairs, with representatives of each campus and the central administration. By having professional offices for international affairs at the campus level, we will be able to better handle current international projects and develop new ones, focusing on research. These new capacities will allow a campus to determine more accurately what it needs from internationalisation and to identify the particular strengths on which it can build international partnerships and research collaborations.
Just as our individual campuses are benefiting from thinking hard about their international endeavours, so is the University of Guadalajara benefiting from rethinking and reviewing its institutional partnerships.
Guadalajara has a long tradition of internationalisation. We have about 700 cross-border agreements, which provide 2,000 of our students a year the opportunity for international mobility. We also receive about 2,000 international students a year throughout our 15 campuses. However, current global trends towards international partnerships in research and more structural collaborations (double-degree programmes, joint research projects and establishing campuses abroad, for example) demand a more focused strategy to select our key partners.
Since 2013, the university has been reviewing its international partnerships and identifying key regions and institutions around the globe with which we want to strengthen our collaboration. Based on our current partnerships and on geographical and geopolitical analyses, we have singled out four regions: North America, Western Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America. Within each region, we have identified a few countries and institutions, trying not to exceed 100 universities worldwide, with which we want to strengthen or develop international partnerships. The university has carried out international missions to some of these regions to reaffirm our commitment to a focused strategy with our international counterparts.
We firmly believe that these two strategies, coupled with other structural initiatives such as programmes for internationalisation at home, will improve our results and our international visibility as a university network.
Like other universities in the region, the University of Guadalajara has to face a new reality where institutional legitimacy, as well as many other valuable resources, depends on the capacity to compete in international rankings, which measure two fundamental areas: international prestige and the impact of research.
Carlos Iván Moreno Arellano, vice-provost for international affairs, University of Guadalajara, Mexico.