Internationalisation in higher education: from barriers to possibilities

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Internationalisation in higher education: from barriers to possibilities
When we came together for a panel session on October 24, 2023, the idea was that we would talk about the potential barriers in internationalization in higher education. But what happened in our session was dynamic, and we flowed into a discussion that grew and shifted into offering insights for our individual institutions, and across the university alliance we’re all connected through.

So, to back up, I am Anna CohenMiller and I was invited to lead a session as part of a professional development week, sometimes referred to as “Staff Week,” that brought together partner universities from across the European University of the Seas (SEA-EU) network across nine countries. The universities all lie next to the sea, thus sharing some common interest, research, and experience around such topics of climate change, sustainability, and innovation, and include deep insights into cross-cultural exchange. Our staff week at Nord University (Norway) focuses on internationalization, including topics of research and mobility.

In our session, we had international panelists from the University of Cadiz, Spain - Juan Ramón Real and from University of Gdansk, Poland - Katarzyna Swierk, along with others from Nord including Professor Jessica Allen Hanssen, administrative staff Veronika Vakulenko, and graduate student Anders Edstrøm. One of the key takeaways from our session pointed to the need to share the insights with others, as a means to share experiences, encourage change, and enhance intercultural understanding and next steps in internationalization, while reducing potential risks. Thus, here is the overview of the session, enjoy!

Identifying the challenges and solutions

The panelists started off in considering challenges in internationalization and the potential solutions they’ve found useful. The topics that emerged included:

● Language considerations - Informal exchanges and having the opportunities to “meet in the kitchen” and discuss and learn about one another offers ways to delve deeper into cultural understanding. Likewise, if there is someone in the room who is from another international context, we can make the effort to move into a language that is of common understanding for all (e.g., English tends to be that common thread).

● Attracting scientists (and students) to come to the particular university - Answering the “Why us?” question is not always easy, especially for younger universities. At times funding and support systems can help, but so too can having access to university alliances which offer even greater opportunities and collaborations.

It was pointed out how over the years Nord has grown and developed, now having a clearly defined mission and with the SEA-EU alliance, clear partners. Having synergy amongst partners is thus a reliable source of future collaborations, which offer a clear direction for future mobility and collaborations, making it easier to reach out across universities by individuals or teams.

● Redefining Internationalization - There are many levels and considerations when we think about what internationalization is, and to recognize that we will need to regularly define and redefine as the communities and world changes.

● Identifying benefits to stakeholders of the university itself - what is the university doing for the community? What are the synergies with partners? How can the universities showcase being reliable and working for the communities in which they are situated? How can being part of an alliance be beneficial for stakeholders, and how can that be communicated effectively? At times, those benefits might come from noting the measurable outcomes, whether that is in cited research work or in open access repositories, public scholarship showcasing the work across a university and/or partnership.

● Addressing uncertainties, recognizing the human side - There are many uncertainties for those who are considering international mobility, especially for students. If a student is working full time, for instance, how can they be supported to get them to go on exchange? Is there a way the university could help facilitate that process? Likewise, living expenses are frequently a concern. Thus, how can universities communicate and provide direction for applying for funding that help to reduce the feelings and realistic uncertainties that students will face when considering studying abroad. Some solutions pointed to clarifying communication channels for students and others, such as on websites, ensuring the information is updated and clearly articulated in English.

● Being patient, learning by doing - In working as part of a fairly new university alliance, we have seen a period of development opening up unique opportunities for growth and development. As everything is new, there’s great potential for development, while also recognizing that there isn’t a need to rush the process. Instead, bit by bit, we can learn from and with one another, within our universities and shared across universities as well.

● Informal organizational structures offer opportunities - While formal structures offer potential for collaborations, it was also noted how informal collaborations and practices by individual faculty members, administrative staff and students could provide other essential practices as well.

Steps to address challenges

After a couple rounds of discussion on these topics, we moved into specific steps to address the challenges in internationalization:

● Juan Ramón discussed the steps of building closer relationships / communication across the university, creating linkages between SEA-EU, International office and the student council.

● Jessica emphasized the informality and the ways in which faculty members can link with one another, extending what they are already doing. For example, a Literature and Environmental Catastrophe course instructor from Nord’s English Language department reached out to other faculty members teaching a similar course at other universities in the alliance, and now has developed a strategic collaboration. Students from three partner universities will learn with one another for a 3 hour session online, learning about the discipline and across cultural contexts.

● Anders pointed to the value of internationalization from the university and the ways in which we can showcase inclusivity. He pointed back to the human side and informal structures, noting that if someone is from a foreign location, to actively work to use English even if there is only one foreign person amongst a larger group.

● Veronica noted other ways we could repurpose the work we’re already engaged in. For example, internationalization is a common topic emphasized throughout the administrative work she is engaged in. It is a topic fundamental to the university and incorporated in internal documents and applications for grants and funding. Thus, using that same type of phrasing could be incorporated elsewhere without much extra work, instead just expanding the communication in other outlets.

● Katarzyna expanded upon on sharing information, such as by extending the general information about SEA-EU. We can work to add to our university sites about the alliance and then extend and update information for the international site to share with others as well.

What can we plan or prepare for?

The final set of questions to the panelists related to potential risks: What can we plan or prepare for in considering internationalization and uncertainties of the future?

Anders pointed to a risk for potential students to consider in studying abroad:
● Academic challenges - For example, without knowing the language before studying abroad, it will be difficult, it will take more time studying and/or your grades may be lower. Recognizing this in advance can then better prepare the students for what and where they are going.

Katyrzynga emphasized personal growth:
● Continuous need for self improvement - as a faculty member pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones may be necessary to showcase our commitment to internationalization and inclusivity. For example, taking the time and learning how to translate a presentation into English (or another native language of the student studying abroad) offers a tremendous sign of welcoming, inclusion, and equity.

Jessica brought up the topic of institutional identity and the pandemic:
● Maintaining our own identity - While thinking about the potential of working across and finding commonalities with university alliances, it is also important to maintain our uniqueness, an idea that can promote greater sense of identity and extending to the broader network.

● Network development as a result of crisis - During the pandemic and in working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, additional networks were developed that helped to provide a sense of individual and community work. Looking forward then, if/when another crisis occurs, the SEA-EU alliance could offer a means to collaborate and maintain an extension of our work outside the physical workplace.

Juan Ramón emphasized connection and humility:
● Humility as a chance to improve - In connecting and learning about others, it was suggested that we have a chance to be humble and see that we don’t know all the answers, and it is okay to not know, and to fail in the process. As we take on a mindset of openness to learn, it is then a protection for our ego and we can develop more.

Veronika noted how we can work together:
● Collaborating across our departments and universities and alliances - In administrative roles, learning from one another offers a means to protect against future risks of internationalization, being willing to grow and develop in the iterations of internationalization.

"Rigid flexibility"

These insights can be linked to the concept “rigid flexibility” in research, which draws from business and emphasizes having a clear goal and being willing to be flexible in how to reach it. And that is in what initially appears as “failure” that great opportunities can develop. Likewise it is through transformative moments of awareness, humility and vulnerability to recognize how we can learn from one another’s stories to create more inclusive spaces for research, collaborations, teaching and learning.

Lastly, the audience was encouraged to share their thoughts for the remaining few minutes of the session. We heard from Nayr Ibrahim (English, Nord) who offered another direction to consider regarding learning from others. In addition to seeing our weakness, she pointed how we can also see our successes, shining the light on what we’re doing well. As the metaphor of a mirror and window, in collaborating, we can see ourselves and others, learning and growing and celebrating ourselves and others. And from Ecological Economics, Amsale Temesgen asked about the ways in which academics could bridge their work with society, and the ways we could think about that for the alliance as well. Responses included the emphasis of how universities are both within the society and also working for society.

So, where do we go from here in addressing the challenges and risks of internationalization and embracing mobility, cultural sharing and knowledge development?

Across all the comments and shared experience, what is clear is the way in which coming together expands our understanding and insights. To consider another metaphor, we can think of individual strands of thread, on our own, we each have a strength and beauty and ability, and yet together, we can create a woven structure that is more robust, offers greater depth, and potential to showcase our individual uniqueness while expanding into an incredible foundation.