Internationalisation and Coronavirus – what next for HE professional services?

Dr Andrew West FAUA

Dr Andrew West, FAUA has a career in HE professional services spanning thirty years. Formerly University Secretary at the University of Sheffield he is a member of the Board of Governors of Leeds Beckett University, Managing Consultant for AUA Consulting, an Associate of Advance HE and a Fellow of the Halpin Partnership.

The impact of Covid 19 is generating some fundamental questions and challenges around the established model of internationalisation in higher education, with a globalised pandemic characterised by nationalised responses, including restrictions on movement- border closures and travel bans – unprecedented in recent decades.

Headlines in parts of the HE media over recent weeks have questioned whether internationalisation can survive in the ‘new normal’, as well as encouraging flexible and adaptive thinking to ‘re-imagine’ international HE. Thinking about the issues from a UK perspective, adding into the mix the potential implications arising from Brexit, not to mention geo-political shifts in relations with China, the future international landscape for HE looks challenging and uncertain. In this context I wonder where this leaves HE professional services – not only those teams focussed on international issues – and what positive contributions professional services colleagues might be able to make in the months ahead?

In a recently published book, Peter Brady reflects on the recent experience of Internationalisation of Post-1992 UK Universities: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Anthem Press, London & New York, 2020). This is quite a polemical, though also somewhat dispiriting, read as the author focusses significantly on examples of international initiatives in HE which seem to have been pursued in a transactional sense – solely with short term financial benefits in mind, rather than originating from a more holistic vision for genuinely internationalised education.

By contrast my own experience of international collaboration in HE professional services has largely been characterised by a generous sharing of experience and practice – with mutual learning in mind and an overriding emphasis on the benefits for educational development and improvement.

Another recent publication exemplifies this much more inclusive – and positive – approach to internationalisation. Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global Foundations, Issues, and Best Practices (International Association of Student Affairs and Services/ Deutsches Studentenwerk, Berlin, 2020) is the third edition of a book which is the product of a truly international collaboration, with around 200 contributing authors representing nearly 100 countries. Over more than 600 pages, this comprehensive publication reflects on key aspects of the HE student experience through the particular lens of student affairs and student services, with considerable space given over to numerous country-by-country reports, revealing a myriad of case studies presented in the ‘voice’ of a local author. Issues relating to leadership/management and organisation/delivery are also fully explored. I was delighted to be invited to co-author a chapter on strategy in student affairs – this single contribution itself being an Africa/America/Europe collaborate.

A special supplement in the book addresses ‘life in the time of COVID-19’, with a series of reflections on HE responses to the pandemic – considering short-term and longer-term challenges and opportunities. In the UK, commentators have widely remarked on the seriously challenging outlook for higher education post-Covid – perhaps the worst financial position the sector has faced for a generation. In the weeks to come there will be more than a temptation to prioritise the immediate and the local over the outward-looking and the global. In this challenging context, how might professional services contribute to maintaining a positive international focus in HE? I want to put forward three very straightforward practical suggestions.

1) Be better informed – make some time, particularly in the post-lockdown period, to develop your knowledge of international HE, bringing the benefits of this learning into your professional practice over the challenging months ahead. One option might be to subscribe (for free) to University World News – delivering a weekly ‘newspaper’ to your inbox, with reports, analysis, features, global round-ups on key issues, plus links to stories from journals around the world. If you work in academic/student administration or student affairs/student services, why not also find the time to browse the contents of the new global best practices publication mentioned above, which the International Association of Student Affairs and Services provides open-access as a free download.

2) Seek out ‘new normal’ international opportunities – for the time being the pandemic has brought to an end many traditional international experiences like overseas exchanges, study tours and conferences. In their wake a wide array of new online opportunities have emerged which potentially open up international learning opportunities more than ever – direct from your desktop. One example is the Centre for Global Higher Education (based at the University of Oxford and UCL) which is currently hosting weekly webinars covering a broad range of global themes, including sustainability, student employability and institutional governance. You might also have seen that AUA’s International Higher Education Network is planning a virtual study tour later in 2020.

3) Recommit to internationalisation – Back in 2013 I was pleased to be involved at the start of #weareinternational – an award-winning campaign promoting a welcome for international students in the UK, which originated at the University of Sheffield and has since been taken up across the sector, with the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) now driving the campaign forward. Reflecting on our current context, now feels like a critical time to redouble our efforts in initiatives like this – using our own roles and influence in professional services to shape a reimagined global approach, encouraging our colleagues, our teams, our service areas, our institutions, and our professional organisations to recommit to a new future of internationalisation.


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