United Kingdom universities talk a good talk when it comes to higher education internationalisation, but an independent expert who is analysing the strategic plans of 140 member institutions belonging to Universities UK has found a “huge mismatch” between what British universities claim are their global priorities and what they measure when evaluating success.
Dr Vicky Lewis, who runs her own consultancy advising higher education institutions on international strategy development, embarked on the research project in September 2020 and told University World News it was disappointing to find some universities still relying on global league table performance and income from international student fees to measure their performance on the world stage.
Despite UK university international strategies moving on from being largely economically driven and focused on overseas student recruitment in the late 1990s and early 2000s to becoming more outward-facing and talking about building long-term relationships and engaging responsibility with communities on a global scale, she found UK universities put twice as much emphasis on their key performance indicators (KPIs) on raising institutional profile, reach and income than on global contribution.
Over-reliance on league table performance
“There is still an over-reliance on traditional measures such as global league table performance, which measure what the ranking compilers view as important rather than considering an institution’s priorities,” she told University World News.
Lewis presented her preliminary findings at the British Council’s International Education Virtual Festival on Thursday 21 January 2021 in a joint session with Dr Janet Ilieva, director of Education Insight – which produced its own Global Engagement Index last year to help universities benchmark international activities across a much wider range of comparative indicators, as University World News reported in October.
For the research project, Lewis probed university strategic plans, which are widely published and reflect global engagement within the context of wider institutional priorities, rather than just looking at international strategies, which are often kept under wraps.
“There does appear to be a huge mismatch between what higher education institutions claim are their international and global priorities and what they actually measure when evaluating their success,” she told University World News.
Move on from one-size-fits-all
“Shouldn’t we be moving on from the one-size-fits-all international rankings approach and the narrowly commercial international enrolments approach of the early 2000s and instead look for a bespoke portfolio of measures tailored to a higher education institution’s key priorities?” asked Lewis.
“Today there is much more focus on community impact, global common good, societal engagement, public value, and the learning outcomes of students, but the rankings have not kept pace with changes in our understanding of the role of universities, which has been thrown into even sharper focus by the pandemic,” Lewis told University World News.
Such a debate is timely, said Lewis, coming a day or so after former UK prime minister Theresa May used the Conservative-leaning Daily Mail newspaper on 19 January 2021 to accuse current British premier Boris Johnson of abandoning Britain’s “position of global moral leadership”.
Writing in the Daily Mail to mark Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president, May suggested her successor had failed to honour British values by threatening to break international law in Brexit trade talks and tearing up the foreign aid target.
Vincenzo Raimo, an international higher education expert and former pro vice-chancellor for global engagement at the University of Reading, welcomed the spotlight being turned on the “mismatch between what UK universities say about their global engagement ambitions and the reality of their actions”.
He worked closely with Dr Ilieva on her Global Engagement Index and said: “Universities talk a good talk when it comes to internationalisation, but resource allocation and actions lag unless the activity leads very directly to international tuition fee revenue.”
Gripes about ‘internationalising’ claims
Among his gripes about UK higher education institutions is how they claim to be ‘internationalising’ while reducing or even closing foreign language study, and the failure to tackle the painfully low number of their students who undertook study abroad even when the UK was fully engaged with programmes like Erasmus.
Reading University’s current pro vice-chancellor (international), Paul Inman, told University World News: “In the world of international student recruitment, many university leaders believe in the alchemy of reiteration. Repeating strategies filled with aspirations of global domination will bring things to pass, make dreams happen. And to be fair to some of these leaders, they have the evidence that this approach works. Resource does indeed follow the rhetoric.
“However, the real challenges appear later. Massive recruitment from particular countries feeds future budgetary expectations. Universities know this only too well. Their planning teams are doing the sums right now.”
In the post-COVID recovery world, Inman predicted that “sustainability will be king” and university senior management would “have to think long and hard about current KPIs which frame their success”.
Alternative measuring tools
Lewis said she was delighted to present her research findings with an opportunity to look at alternative measurement tools, such as those offered by Education Insight’s Global Engagement Index (GEI).
“The GEI is not designed as a ranking, but rather as a valuable self-improvement tool – with the opportunity to benchmark performance. It can help to pinpoint which aspects of global engagement are important to an individual institution and which need more attention.”
Earlier attempts to evaluate institutions against wider criteria, such as the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, were seen as ‘good faith’ attempts to measure universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, said Lewis, “but there were reservations about the institutions that participated being self-selecting, the reliance on self-reporting, and a lack of transparency about how the judgements are made.”
She described the European Commission-backed U-Multirank as “another valiant effort”, but it never quite caught on, particularly in the UK.
As to how university chiefs can escape the vice-like grip of the rankings, Lewis told University World News: “Senior university managers are in an invidious position because they need metrics that will be straightforward to measure and understand, such as the number of international students, research income and position in league table, rather than ones that need lots of contextualisation and explanation.
“But they’re at risk of chasing goals that don’t ultimately have a lot to do with fulfilling the mission that they state their institution espouses.”
Areas overlooked by policy-makers
Last word to Ilieva and how her Global Engagement Index can come to the rescue.
“What we’ve done is shine the spotlight on areas which are usually overlooked by higher education institutions and policy-makers, such as the UK’s very high international students’ continuation rates compared to other countries, satisfaction with their studies and graduate outcomes, as well as areas of concern, such as market diversification and reliance on a small number of countries for international students.
“We’ve also attempted to measure ‘internationalisation at home’ and ‘study abroad’ agendas, through the proportion of home students with study abroad experiences, international themes in the curricula and the take-up of modern and foreign languages.
“I hope universities see the value of this approach and now seize the opportunity to evaluate the impact of the UK’s newly introduced post-study work visas on international students’ employability, and highlight other areas where UK higher education institutions are making a positive global impact, such as nearly two-thirds of transnational students on UK degrees being based in Official Development Assistance, or ODA, countries.”