Moving towards internationality

Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger

Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger is President, Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). She is a Professor for Gender and Diversity in Organisations.

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Universities and business schools are international bodies by their nature. But, says Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger, in troubled times they need to make a stronger stand for ‘internationality’ and diversity 

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Transcending national boundaries has always been part of a university’s role and researchers and academics have always collaborated in international research projects, travelled abroad and built international networks.

Over the past few decades, however, universities have been working to systematise their international activities. University leaders and political decision makers in the tertiary education field now regard internationalisation as a cornerstone of universities’ strategic development.

Today, internationalisation is a key term in the strategic documents of almost all universities. And its growing importance has increased the variety and complexity of internationalisation strategies and activities.

Common goals, different strategies 

The goal of internationalisation is shared by business schools as well as universities worldwide but the strategies for achieving it vary. There are different ways of stimulating student and faculty mobility and international research projects.

Some universities have established satellite locations abroad. The advantages are clear: faculty members work in their own countries and abroad, allowing them to gain intercultural experience, guarantee uniform quality standards in teaching and enable universities to attract students from a larger area.

Other institutions, like our own Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), focus on international relations. Internationalisation in the form of participation in international networks has been a driving force for WU since its foundation in 1898 and WU started establishing the required organisational structures and services early. In 1990 WU was one of the first Austrian universities to set up an International Office and a committee for international relations and exchange partners.

The next steps were clear: expanding the range of exchange partners and partner universities, building a portfolio of English-language courses and professionalising the exchange services offered.

Internationalisation at universities 

Geographic outreach is one of the key factors of internationalisation. Due to its location in Vienna, WU’s internationalisation activities naturally have focused on the central and eastern European (CEE) market, both in research and teaching though, of course, the university has expanded its network globally.

WU’s teaching activities have always had a strong international dimension. By recruiting international students and faculty, WU seeks to create an environment where all members of the WU community can benefit from intercultural exchange. These activities are also intended to make the university more competitive internationally and guarantee high quality standards.

It is important to WU to satisfy the expectations of its students, faculty and partners with regard to internationalisation. One in four WU students comes from abroad and WU has over 200 partner universities, fostering student mobility.

WU also offers an English-language specialisation in its bachelors programmes as well as seven English-language masters programmes and two English-language PhD programmes.

It has set up double degree and joint degree programmes with renowned partner universities and offers international summer programmes to further stimulate international student mobility.

Participation in international networks is also very important to WU, especially regarding responsibility in business and economics education and teaching. Universities have to work hard to stand out internationally and many business schools use very similar approaches to achieve this goal. The key factors that attract national and international students to a specific university are reputation, international standing, positions in international rankings, accreditations and of course the quality of the programmes offered.

Internationalisation has an essential role in research. Researchers have international networks, publish jointly with colleagues at home and abroad and spend research time at renowned international institutions.

High-profile visiting professors only pick the best universities worldwide and universities with an international outlook work to encourage mobility among their researchers and to provide an attractive environment for international guests.

The next step: internationality 

All of these activities help universities strengthen their international visibility and attract the best students and researchers. However, universities should also keep a critical eye on these efforts and be aware of how much internationalisation is needed and when internationalisation should give way to “internationality”.

For while internationalisation focuses on measures and programmes for gaining international visibility, the next step for universities such as WU is to go from internationalisation to “internationality”. What do we mean by this idea?

Internationality is a mind-set, a spirit, the culture of a university that emphasises identity and branding.

Let us discuss an example. An internationalisation measure such as international staff recruitment also requires additional activities to ensure the successful integration of international personnel into the workforce. For this reason, internationality has to be part of a university’s core identity. In other words, internationality has to be “lived out”.

At WU, for example, a new, English-language bachelors programme in business and economics will be rolled out in the 2018 fall term. International Erasmus+ mobility programmes are offered to students, faculty and administrative staff. All key documents are available in both English and German, an international board has been set up and international experience has been made one of the key criteria in faculty promotion.

Another important step on the way towards internationality is recruiting and keeping researchers who have gained international experience in other university research, teaching and network systems.

WU also offers professional welcome services to help new faculty plan and prepare their move to Vienna and get off to a good start and is part of a network that aims to provide attractive opportunities for dual-career couples.

Looking at headcounts is the wrong approach 

Internationalisation is one of the dimensions frequently analysed for university rankings and accreditations and the most common indicator for measuring internationalisation is the number of students and faculty members not from the home nation of the institution they are working and studying in.

Universities seeking accreditation or re-accreditation are subject to continuous and comprehensive scrutiny to assess whether they fulfil the required quality standards. However, the choice of criteria used for accreditations and rankings warrants a critical look: who decides which percentage of international students makes a university “international”? Are 23% enough? 35%? And what’s the target? 50%, 60%, or even 90%?

Are incoming students expected to know the national language or are English-taught courses available? Simple headcounts, the most frequent method for measuring internationality, are a rather inadequate proxy for international experience: Universities might be criticised for recruiting international faculty from neighbouring countries, maybe even countries with the same language.

However, this ignores the fact that many faculty members recruited from neighbouring countries or even domestically may previously have spent several years in other countries with other languages. Would it not be fair to assume that these faculty members can offer significant international experience, an international spirit and access to large international networks?

Furthermore, a publicly funded university such as WU also needs to satisfy demand for skilled graduates from the national business community which might also set some limits to internationalisation.

Internationality under attack? 

So becoming an international university is a two-fold process. In the beginning, the focus often lies on internationalisation measures but once these measures have gained a certain momentum, the next step should be internationality. In the light of current political developments, it seems rather unclear if this will remain possible in the future. It is hard to predict if universities’ internationalisation strategies will be affected by the current shift towards nationalism in many countries and growing anti-EU and anti-migration sentiment.

European integration and co-operation are not very high on the agendas of some of the parties that have risen to power in certain countries. Some nations are becoming more sceptical about internationalisation in general, not least concerning universities and their funding.

Of course it is part of the responsibility of universities, and part of their goals, to help advance the development of their home countries. Through research, universities contribute to solving the economic, social and ecological problems of the day, both on a regional and on a global scale.

It is therefore very clear that each university has to consider its roots and strengths and cater to the needs of its home market. Entering new markets and, as a further step, strengthening internationality definitely has to remain an important goal, however.

At this juncture, especially regarding political developments, it would be very important for the EU to provide additional funding to programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, which are intended to counter these tendencies.

Most universities have a large degree of autonomy in their operations and are critical of the developments outlined above. In a society characterised by growing diversity, universities have to build bridges and make sure that internationality keeps growing strongly over the long run.

Today it is more important than ever for universities to stand up for internationality and diversity and to keep the public informed about the importance of these issues.

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