THE World University Rankings 2021: internationalisation in a post-Covid world

With travel no longer carefree, Simon Baker hears how standouts on internationalisation plan to keep attracting global talent

September 2, 2020
Earth eclipsed by coronavirus
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Browse the full results of the World University Rankings 2021


Over the past decade or so, internationalisation has grown to be a vital strategic goal for many universities around the world in terms of students, staff and research collaboration.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings has been able to map out these trends through the international outlook pillar, with certain countries and institutions emerging as global leaders in the activity.

But the coronavirus pandemic has threatened to transform this landscape, not just in the short term – due to immediate decisions about whether to study abroad, for instance – but potentially prompting more permanent shifts.

For instance, some experts have suggested that student mobility may move to a more regional pattern, especially in Asia, with fewer people willing to travel to Europe and North America for study. Staff movement could also follow suit if universities in certain regions seek to bolster their reputations to attract students. At the same time, international collaboration may become a more important way of building strong research partnerships if mobility becomes less global.

So are universities that in the past have successfully adapted to internationalisation already preparing for such changes?

At the City University of Hong Kong, which has been one of the highest scorers in the international outlook pillar of the rankings, the pandemic has been seen as an opportunity to reinvest in its teaching approach in a way that it hopes could pay dividends longer term.

It has invested heavily in its online learning infrastructure so that classes can be streamed in real time online even if students are able to attend campus. Lecturers have also been given technical and pedagogical training on how to run an effective online session.

According to Matthew Lee Kwok-on, vice-president for development and external relations, this “mixed-mode” capability was not only about helping the university to operate during the pandemic, but also about transforming what it can offer students in the future.

“We have been talking about online learning being a supplementary aid to face-to-face teaching for a long time, but [the pandemic] gave us the incentive to make institutional-wide policy and investment in the infrastructure and training on a large scale,” he says.

“[After the pandemic], we believe this system will give us a lot more capabilities not only in terms of enriching…ways that classes can be delivered but also it can help us in our internationalisation strategies so that we can reach out to more audiences.”

Examples include undergraduates who are abroad on student exchanges being able to keep up with core modules while they are away, and postgraduates having more flexibility about when they begin and end their courses.

“I very much believe that this is going to be a long-term change. The pandemic situation has accelerated this change,” he adds.

At another institution that has performed highly for international outlook in the past, the University of Essex, flexibility is also the watchword in terms of how teaching has adapted in light of the pandemic.

“We welcome the pace of innovation that the pandemic has forced and are confident that the improvements will result in very high-quality education opportunities for our students for decades to come,” says Dominic Micklewright, dean of partnerships at Essex.

“Compared to the past, there will be much greater flexibility in when, how and at what rate students are able to study.”

He adds that the “dual delivery” approach Essex had adopted included “synchronous and asynchronous learning activities using mixed-reality teaching methods, virtual classrooms and other methods that enable students to interact with their tutors and peers in real time”.

“It will also be possible for our students to switch easily between online and face-to-face teaching, providing them with the greatest flexibility according to their individual situation.”

But will different approaches to teaching still mean that students from countries that have been major sources of international outbound mobility – such as China and India – continue to choose institutions a long way from home?

Lee says CityU, which recruits many students from mainland China, was already seeing an increase in top students from India “who used to go to North America”. There was also rising recruitment from the Middle East, when a decade ago virtually no students came from that region, he says.

He predicts that although having students from outside Hong Kong would continue to be a strategic priority, “the mix may change” in terms of where they hail from.

“On the one hand it [may become] more internationalised in the sense that [the cohorts are] more than just your local region. But on the other hand, the mix [may become] less heterogeneous because there will be fewer students from further afield and more from neighbouring countries,” he says.

However, if such a trend does take hold, it may be that the strongest international institutions in Europe and North America still attract their fair share of overseas students.

Pierre Vandergheynst, vice-president for education at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, says that even during the pandemic it had not seen any tailing off in demand and the institution “seems to attract more and more students” from outside Switzerland.

“There is nothing specific we do for international students. The Covid-19 semester showed that you can do a fair amount of online teaching, but more importantly that on-campus activities and contact are extremely important,” he says.

Vandergheynst suggests that in terms of staff recruitment it was also important for the institution to stick to its principles.

“There was no hiring freeze at EPFL; we firmly believe that investing in top talents in a period of crisis is the best possible investment. We do our best to offer the best possible prospects for young faculty and help them settle in the best possible research environment,” he says.

At Essex, too, there also seems to be a determination to maintain focus on the core reasons why researchers might want to come and work at the institution, whatever travel restrictions and barriers there might be.

“World-class researchers are drawn and commit to institutions where they can interact with others who share common interests and who are working at the leading edge of their field,” says Christine Raines, pro vice-chancellor for research.

“Over the past five years, we have been building our research community and increasing our critical mass, allowing us to build on our existing areas of expertise and develop new ones. All this provides an attractive environment for high-quality researchers from around the world.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com


International outlook pillar

Rank in pillar

Position in World University Rankings

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

251–300

Macau University of Science and Technology

Macao

100.0

2

126

City University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

99.8

=3

201–250

University of Luxembourg

Luxembourg

99.6

=3

251–300

Università della Svizzera Italiana

Switzerland

99.6

5

301–350

Qatar University

Qatar

99.4

6

301–350

University of Macau

Macao

99.3

7

39

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

99.0

8

601–800

University of Sharjah

United Arab Emirates

98.9

9

43

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Switzerland

98.5

10

351–400

Hong Kong Baptist University

Hong Kong

98.4

=11

=56

Chinese University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

98.3

=11

=149

University of Geneva

Switzerland

98.3

=13

14

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

98.0

=13

=121

Maastricht University

Netherlands

98.0

15

251–300

Alfaisal University

Saudi Arabia

97.8

=16

=56

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Hong Kong

97.4

=16

11

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

97.4

18

=92

University of Basel

Switzerland

97.2

19

=160

University of Technology Sydney

Australia

97.0

20

110

Queen Mary University of London

United Kingdom

96.8

21

=200

Queen’s University Belfast

United Kingdom

96.7

=22

301–350

University of Essex

United Kingdom

96.5

=22

16

UCL

United Kingdom

96.5

24

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

96.4

25

59

Australian National University

Australia

96.2

=26

=87

École Polytechnique

France

96.1

=26

129

Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Hong Kong

96.1

28

351–400

Brunel University London

United Kingdom

96.0

=29

251–300

Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand

95.9

=29

351–400

University of Innsbruck

Austria

95.9

31

6

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

95.7

32

=178

University of Aberdeen

United Kingdom

95.6

=33

35

King’s College London

United Kingdom

95.4

=33

201–250

University of St Andrews

United Kingdom

95.4

35

601–800

Lincoln University

New Zealand

95.3

=36

351–400

City, University of London

United Kingdom

95.1

=36

401–500

University of St Gallen

Switzerland

95.1

=38

201–250

Curtin University

Australia

95.0

=38

501–600

Télécom SudParis

France

95.0

=40

25

National University of Singapore

Singapore

94.8

=40

=155

Trinity College Dublin

Republic of Ireland

94.8

=42

34

University of British Columbia

Canada

94.7

=42

67

UNSW Sydney

Australia

94.7

=44

30

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

94.6

=44

=136

Lancaster University

United Kingdom

94.6

=44

=164

University of Vienna

Austria

94.6

=44

139

The University of Western Australia

Australia

94.6

=48

=147

University of Auckland

New Zealand

94.5

=48

=127

University of Southampton

United Kingdom

94.5

=48

251–300

University of Surrey

United Kingdom

94.5

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: International hotspots keep their cachet

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