Is internationalisation the magic bullet? | AUA Blog

Kathryn Fowler, Chair of the AUA

Business Development/Operational Manager

University of Aberdeen


Recently, the Principal of our sister University in Aberdeen was quoted in our local paper:

Robert Gordon University Principal Ferdinand von Prondzynski told the Press and Journal his university is already suffering the effects of Brexit.

“We have had to work twice as hard to get the numbers of international students and staff as before,” he said.

“Brexit is not just damaging EU migration but also international migration – for example, people from China are saying Britain is turning away from the global community and becoming unwelcoming.

“The message going out needs to be balanced and corrected because Scotland needs to be emphatic in saying people from other countries are welcome here.”

Many universities are vigorously seeking to address demographic issues (falling home student numbers), concerns over Brexit (loss of European students) by looking to expand their overseas recruitment. The sector is increasingly engaged in developing new campuses overseas, in offering distance learning.

Similarly, to maintain grant income, activity and impact, researchers are looking to partner globally.

All this needs different thinking, new processes. I have experience of working on collaborative projects with universities in America, Africa, Asia, Australia. Each one is different ; reflecting on the challenges, in this blog I am sharing a few key considerations:

  • Temporal matters: time can become a major issue: if they are working when you are asleep, even a 5 hour time difference can cause strains. Emails are not going to answered straight away, phone calls and video conference can be a challenge. We have a partnership with an Australian institution – we have a 3 weekly video conference that takes place at 8 am in the morning; one colleague connects from home because of childcare commitments. Our Australian colleagues are at the end of their working day. This does get round the time difference, but makes for slow progress.
  • Experience also says that we cannot assume we will run on the same annual cycle – term dates are different, exam dates are different, less busy time is different. With one American partner we spent some time understanding each rhythm before identifying one period each year when an exchange could happen – the exchange has run smoothly because we took time to understand the drivers of both institutions.
  • Processes: regulations will differ – in many cases the government of the partner institution may have a direct role in directing policy and planning. With one potential partner, we were surprised to find at the first exploratory inward visit to be met with a demand for an memorandum of understanding before more talks could continue. For us, an MOU was fairly meaningless – a promise to try to work together, but for them it was tangible proof that they had done something and that mattered. Beyond that, what one University requires to meet its regulations may form a major barrier to progress. As professional services staff, we can identify issues at an early stage and suggest potential solutions.
  • Attitude: this can be a hidden issue – not everyone will be supportive and engaged to the same level – it can cause frustration and “turning off” from the project. Spotting blockers at an early stage can lead to frank discussions or sensitive probing. Another important role for the professional services colleagues involved.
  • Culture: this may seem obvious where there are particularly  obvious differences, but being aware of cultural differences in respect of ‘similar’ settings ( such as Australia and America) is crucial. We may speak a common language, our educational systems and ambitions may outwardly seem very similar, but always look out for cultural separation – drivers may differ, and the intended outcomes may be widely separate.
  • Expectations: This is one of the major pitfalls to look out for – what does each partner want/expect out of the partnership, collaboration or connection? Do they align? How far will the lead/stronger partner be able to deliver? How far can expectations be limited or managed?

And with all this, there is the bigger debate of whether internationalisation is the right choice for an institution. Should we be examining the purpose, the structure, the whole way in which we deliver Higher Education? Is the classic 3 or 4 year degree model valid? Is facing outward, following the scramble for international students and research money, the right way for all our institutions? Is this really a magic bullet or a poisoned chalice? And what impact will that have for staff in the home institution, for the work of Professional Services staff? We all need to think about this, and be ready to contribute our thoughts, our support, our contribution.