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ACA Newsletter guest article by Rolf Hoffmann, Executive Director of the German-American Fulbright Commission

Only one or two decades ago, most European higher education institutions would have considered ‘internationalisation’ to be just another synonym for their student exchange programmes and institutional partnership agreements. In both cases, they would have actively followed ‘the more the better’ principle, thus equating quantity with successful internationalisation. Parity among partner institutions in ‘mutual’ exchange programmes was to be achieved, as were balanced (non-) payment schemes – all in the spirit of dialogue and cultural enrichment first, and some academic gain too, if possible, but rarely accounted for after the students’ return to the home institution.

At many institutions, these international ‘affairs’ were handled by international offices. There was little – if any – guidance from institutional leaders, many of whom were faculty elected to their positions and staying in office barely long enough to handle day-to-day academic affairs. Institutional missions – which only a few European universities had in those times – mostly did not include internationalisation strategies. Furthermore, the lack of professional administration on all levels – as compared, for example, to US institutions – implied that actual exchange was operationally implemented (and sometimes even administered) by faculty members who participated voluntarily in these efforts, together with the staff of international offices.

This scenario changed for the majority of European higher education institutions within a few years, though. Step by step, developments such as the institutionalisation of ERASMUS, the implementation of the Bologna Process, the adaptation to changing demographics requiring institutions to turn from elite academic schools into mass education providers (whether they wanted this or not), and the need to compete in an increasingly commercial environment on a global level for the ‘best and brightest’, forced Europe’s mostly state-financed institutions with strong public missions to adapt accordingly.

In addition to new corporate identities, newly defined goals and institutional strategies incorporated into a mission, as well as new and more professional governance structures and funding models providing increased autonomy (and greater responsibility), ‘internationalisation’ itself suddenly became a timely tool to shape an institution’s reputation at home and abroad.

It is this new approach to internationalisation – as a process, not as a goal in itself – that has left many institutional leaders with a need to more clearly define their (institutional) goals, and then to include an ‘international’ agenda that is differentiated, serves the multiple needs of the institution, the students and the faculty, and thus – in a more general way – fosters quality in teaching and research.

Many institutions lack the capacity to address these substantial challenges on their own. Professional audits like the ACA Internationalisation Monitor (AIM) initiative offer an opportunity to recruit experts from the field who can support the institution by looking at its strategy, current activities and internationalisation processes and suggest ways to develop these further.

More importantly, fresh perspectives from external experts can help to define the link between an institutional strategy, governance structures and tools of internationalisation. Key elements which ought to be considered in this kind of analysis include the value of international cooperation with equal partners; a diverse recruitment strategy for students and faculty across disciplines, programmes and world regions (or ‘markets’); study-abroad initiatives and agreements customised to the academic and/or cultural enrichment needs of students, doctoral candidates and faculty; ‘internationalisation on campus’ initiatives, and last – but certainly not least – quality assurance in institutional internationalisation efforts.

It is the aim of AIM to help institutions to establish internationalisation as one of their prime drivers for change, innovation, quality and reputation. This is nothing less than a change of paradigm from the ‘old days’: it is not the numbers that count, alone – it is the quality that makes the difference.