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Taking the pulse of Irish higher education internationalisation

A recently released report – The internationalisation of Irish higher education – commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and authored by Marie Clarke, Linda Hui Yang and David Harmon, provides further empirical evidence on the state of internationalisation in Ireland. The study addresses the extent of internationalisation of Irish higher education institutions (HEIs) and the mechanisms in place for the promotion, development and implementation of internationalisation at sectoral and national level. It focuses on institutional strategies, curriculum, teaching and learning and support services for international students at institutional level. The research was carried out  by means of a large-scale quantitative survey of public and private HEIs  interviews with key stakeholders.

In a nutshell, the authors conclude, mainly based on the growing international (degree-seeking) student numbers and the diversification of recruitment markets, that “despite operating during a period of prolonged cuts to resources, Irish HEIs have been very successful in their internationalisation efforts”.

More specifically, the majority of institutions indicated that national-level policies– such as Ireland’s International Education Strategy 2016-2020, the National Education Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, but also the Education in Ireland Strategy and the Erasmus Charter and Erasmus policy statements – influenced and shaped institutional internationalisation strategies. Internationalisation was featured in the strategic plans of HEIs and was referred to in other documents such as business plans, the Erasmus Charter for Higher Education, the HEA compact and mission statements. 

Nevertheless, most institutions struggled with following some of the nationally defined objectives, such as the promotion of outgoing student mobility, as students were reluctant to go abroad due to language-related issues, and socioeconomic background (attested also by the EUROSTUDENT VI Report 2018). At the same time, some institutions acknowledged not having prioritised this area in the past because it did not generate income for the institution, thus focusing mainly on international student recruitment. Overall, a recurring theme was the focus on increasing numbers and revenue at institutional level, rather than using resources to meet the needs of international students.

In addition to student recruitment, the majority of institutions prioritised formal links, agreements, articulation arrangements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs), but most of them did not set criteria to review and manage the effectiveness of exchange agreements against the strategic plans. 

Most Irish institutions also acknowledged the importance of the internationalisation of the curriculum, and offered examples of curricular reform where they expanded traditional subject areas with internationally comparative approaches, delivered curricula that led to internationally recognised professional qualifications and designed curricula which prepared students for defined international professions. Nevertheless, it was acknowledged that more needed to be done in this area to prepare graduates to enter a global working environment. For the majority of the faculty, however, the term internationalisation of the curriculum was unfamiliar, with mixed views about internationalising the curriculum – some saw it as very important, while others did not see the need to explicitly state this in learning outcomes, as the majority of students were domestic and programmes should focus on their needs. 

Many of the challenges encountered by Irish institutions seem to be related to underfunding, with most institutions acknowledging they were not internationalising to the fullest of their potential, being constrained by a lack of resources. There was a general consensus that internationalisation was not incentivised enough and that this impacted on the implementation of the institutional strategy. The directors of international offices were in favour of having incentivised schemes (such as scholarship programmes and discount schemes for students). Over half of those surveyed considered that incentives or reward programmes would contribute to increasing the number of international students coming to the institution.

Furthermore, institutions declared to be challenged in their marketing efforts by the perception that Ireland was not a well-known country in key markets, which they attributed to a lack of government investment in the promotion of the country brand. 
Beyond resources tough, the faculty generally felt that they were not supported to engage with internationalisation, citing additional work involved, the lack of recognition in the promotion process and the lack of respect for the time that is involved in such activity. It further emerged from the study that there seemed to be a lack of clarity around the future direction of internationalisation within institutions, with faculty often not knowledgeable about the implementation of the strategic plans concerning internationalisation, or about the functions performed by colleagues responsible for internationalisation. However, when faculty became directly involved in internationalisation, they became advocates of the strategy at faculty level.