The Internationalisation of UK Universities – a progress report

Cover pic internalization

This week, Philip Warwick, Senior Teaching Fellow at Durham University Business School, UK, writes at guest blog on the state of internationalisation in British universities. Professor Warwick has been studying the international strategies of a number of universities in the UK and in other countries. He has found that approaches vary across countries. Within the UK he has identified four specific strategies to international development within the group of universities he studied. 

In most European countries the emphasis is on such things as: developing EU flagopportunities for students to have international placements; standardising qualifications and credit ratings and in many Business Schools, teaching in English. 

Top US universities have tended to carry on much as they always have, USA-Flag1concentrating on developing their research reputation, recruiting international research staff and expecting rich or scholarship funded students to travel from around the world to receive an education in their prestigious universities.

Australian universities have spent more time trying to engage staff in australian flagchanges to the curriculum but have had more difficulty in attracting international students to travel to Australia and have instead opted for off-shoring – the development of satellite campuses in off-shore locations (typically Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and increasingly mainland China).

UK universities fall somewhere in the middle between the US model and great britainAustralian style off-shoring (at a tangent to the rest of Europe).  Some well established UK universities emphasise their research reputation, some, believing that they can only provide a true British learning experience on their home campus put all their effort into international student recruitment, while a more entrepreneurial group have expanded off-shore, setting up campuses and collaborations in the Middle-East, Central Asia, India and Pakistan, Malaysia and China.


Extensive fieldwork revealed differences in internationalisation strategies among UK universities.

I have just completed a research project looking at the internationalisation of UK higher education. It involved developing four case studies, interviewing a cross-section of students, academics, university managers and senior academic staff.  The four universities were chosen because they had a similar history and heritage (they were all campus based and established in the early 1960s) the hope was that this would allow me to look at their internationalisation strategies without being too distracted by contextual differences between the universities.  Interestingly, despite their similar heritage, they had developed four very different ideas of what it was to be internationalised.

What surprised me, when analysing my research findings, was just how little shared understanding there was about what internationalisation was, and how it impacted on students and staff at UK institutions.  The four universities had developed four very different approaches to internationalisation as follows:

1)      One had developed a series of partnerships with education providers in India, Pakistan, China and Malaysia, with the aim of awarding more degrees in Asia than they did in Britain.

2)      One had focussed on recruiting international students to study in the UK, via a contract with a profit making recruitment agency and provider of foundation degrees and pre-sessional language courses.

3)      One had a dual focus on international research collaborations and international student recruitment

4)      One had focussed on actions to internationalise the student learning experience and to enhance the experience of international students on the home campus.

Despite the best intentions of the university hierarchy, I got the clear impression that most students and staff at three of the four UK universities thought that internationalisation was recruiting international students, with none of the other issues about the curriculum, cross-cultural communication, international experience or international perspective coming across their radar.

Art, humanities ...

Departments of Arts rarely deal with an issue of internationalisation.

All four universities in the survey were struggling to a greater or lesser extent to achieve staff engagement with the internationalisation agenda.   Specific schools and departments such as the Business School, Engineering, Computing, Economics, and Education departments were at the forefront of teaching international students, while other departments in the rest of the university, for example arts, humanities and pure sciences, were perceived by the interviewees to be largely unaffected by internationalisation and were reported to have hardly noticed internationalisation as an issue.


The studied universities seem to lack skills to implement internationalisation strategy.

The other common feature at three of the four organisations was the difficulty senior academic staff were experiencing in trying to implement their internationalisation strategy.  They were clearly committed to internationalisation, but were finding it very difficult to move beyond agreeing the wording of their internationalisation strategy to actually taking any action to implement the strategy.  The universities studied seem to lack the management knowledge, skills and experience to introduce a major organisational change; never an easy task in large not-for-profit, professional service organisations, especially when academic staff value their professional autonomy so highly and are suspicious of management initiatives.

British students

UK students are simply not interested in the sort of international experiences driving changes in other parts of Europe.

One further factor inhibiting the progress on university internationalisation in the UK at present is the lack of student demand.  Domestic UK students are not pushing for internationalisation in the same way as their continental European and Asian counterparts.   UK undergraduate opinions arguably have more influence than ever before in the decision making process.  Universities want to do well in the National Student Survey because of the impact on league tables and student recruitment.  They are also very mindful of the jump in undergraduate tuition fees that took place in 2012.  As a result they listen and react to student feedback.  However, unlike their European neighbours, there is little demand from UK domestic students to study cross-cultural communication, to have access to foreign language study or to go on international placements.  UK students are simply not interested in the sort of international experiences driving changes in other parts of Europe.

Without staff engagement, limited management expertise and no great demand from their students, most UK universities seem to be in no rush to internationalise their activities. For many, international student fee income remains essential for economic survival (despite the 2012 increase in domestic student fees) and so is a must do.  Everything else we can class as nice to do.  The Higher Education Academy is doing its best to change this situation and convince UK universities that internationalisation is a priority that requires action, but the reach of their activities is limited.  Do not expect to see much change in this situation in 2013, or any time soon.

PhilipWarwickPhilip Warwick

Senior Teaching Fellow
Durham University Business School

Prior to entering academic life Philip spent 17 years working as a manager in the National Health Service (NHS) in Yorkshire and the north east of England. While still a manager in the NHS he studied for a part-time MBA at Durham Business School. In 2000, he joined the University of York, where he stayed until moving to Durham in autumn 2012.

Philip has two main areas of research interest and activity, public sector strategy and internationalisation and the scholarship of teaching and learning. His public sector strategy interest encompasses health service management and university management, in particular the international business in higher education, which is the subject of his doctoral research. Much of his work in the field of teaching and learning also relates to internationalising teaching and learning, making teaching and learning more appropriate and relevant to an international audience.


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Filed under Business Schools, Education, Great Britain, Guest Authors, Higher Education, International studies, Strategy, Study Abroad

15 responses to “The Internationalisation of UK Universities – a progress report

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