The increasingly complex, networked, and globalised environments highly affect the internationalisation of universities of applied sciences (UASs) today and probably even more so in the future. Higher education institutions (HEIs) need to increase systemic collaboration both internally and with external actors in societies locally and globally in order to ensure not only the continued success of the institution but to achieve collective impact together with other stakeholders. This will lead to Internationalisation of higher education (IHE) no longer being a purely internal matter but will inevitably be interconnected with phenomena, regulations, organisations, stakeholders, and individuals outside the institution. HEIs must therefore find ways of aligning multiple agendas, resources, and monitoring tools to achieve desired and mutually beneficial change and impact in their local and global societies.
In this article, I will provide a concrete example of an initiative where four UASs and one third sector organisation in Europe are exploring ways of increasing the much-needed retention of international degree students and graduates in their host countries and communities. This is a large and multifaceted issue which cannot be solved by a single organisation. It requires the involvement of many actors, including the students themselves. This multi-stakeholder approach to addressing a common societal issue and the constant international benchlearning in doing so will bring valuable insights to the field of IHE more broadly as we research, explore, and pilot several initiatives in multiple countries and disseminate the results open access both locally and globally.
UASs as Front-Runners of Internationalisation at Home
In many countries, research universities have explicit missions to serve the global society while UASs have a more regional focus and responsibility to serve the local communities. This distinction may have worked well in the past but as globalisation is increasing, so is the diversity of the local regions and communities in most countries. UASs are often known for their close cooperation with local and regional businesses and their applied research and education. Yet the concept of IHE is still treated as intraorganisational processes for HEIs and not as mutual, co-creative processes with the communities they serve.
The strong local and regional connection could offer UASs a unique opportunity to be front-runners in Internationalisation at Home (IaH). UASs could position themselves as drives of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in their local environments and use internationalisation activities as tools for enhancing mutual understanding and collaboration among multiple stakeholders. As UASs are also positioned to connect closely to working life and to foster work-ready graduates one obvious area for harnessing the benefits of IHE would be in cooperation with external stakeholders connected to the local employability of international students and graduates. This in turn supports the internationalisation of the local region and ultimately the country as well.
Complexity Calls for Increased Collaboration
Access to highly-skilled talent is becoming a critical barrier to growth, especially in countries with diminishing populations, and it is crucial for local companies to either broaden their recruitment also to international talents already in the country or seek to attract them from abroad (Finnish Government 2021). A logical starting point would be to recruit highly educated international students already residing in, and familiar with, the host country and region. This would be mutually beneficial for the companies, HEIs, local communities, the country, and the international students and graduates.
However, the choice of a place of study is highly dependent on several factors beyond the control of the HEI, e.g. country, city, local language, living conditions, permits, affordability, and employment prospects (Franck 2021). But neither employers nor third sector organisations, associations, or even governments are considered official stakeholders of most UASs (beyond the legal and funding regulations and processes). This means that IHE of these UASs is planned, carried out, assessed, and developed as a one-way effort, instead of a mutual strategic and operational process. However, the national Talent Boost programme in Finland is an example of systemic multi-stakeholder collaboration at both national and regional levels in holistically addressing the many complex issues related to internationalisation (The Talent Boost Programme).
Increased Employability and Employer-Ability
One of Arcada University of Applied Sciences’ main activities within the Talent Boost programme is the Erasmus+ Cooperation Partnership project INTERLOCALITY – Increased Local Employability of International Degree Students together with three other UASs and a third sector organisation in Europe (INTERLOCALITY 2022). The aim of the project is to increase the local employability of the international degree students and graduates within the fields of Business Administration and Engineering. University College of Northern Denmark (UCN), Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and Münster University of Applied Sciences in Germany are all regional UASs, while Arcada is situated in the capital of Finland. What they all have in common is the predominance of SMEs (1-250 employees) and the need for highly-skilled workforce in our areas.
For UASs with compulsory internships local employability is in fact a critical factor even for retaining and graduating the students. All four partner UASs have experienced significant difficulties in the local integration and employability of our international degree students which also means a significant barrier to our internationalisation. As UASs focus less on global research and capacity building abroad but more on local initiatives, attracting, and retaining international students is one of the most crucial internationalisation activities – not only for the UASs but for the region and the country. As Tue Werner Mikkelsen, International Consultant, Employability & Retention at UCN and main partner project manager of INTERLOCALITY puts it:
“It is time to break down the silos to improve collaboration and acknowledge the interdependence between HEIs and local stakeholders.”
The INTERLOCALITY project has broadened the perception of IHE, and specifically of the critical element of local employability of international degree students, to involve multiple external stakeholders. We chose to focus on four stakeholder groups in what we call a Quadruple Helix-model: the UASs, local SMEs, third sector actors involved in bridging the gap between higher education and working life, and the international degree students and graduates themselves. Previous experiences show that local employability of international degree students, and consequently IHE more broadly, is a complex issue which UASs cannot solve by themselves.
Therefore, this project will explore not only ways of enhancing the international degree students’ employability as part of their studies, in which local internships play a major role, but also investigating the concept of “employer-ability” (Morely 2001). The current discourse places all the responsibility for employability on the students and graduates, but none of the responsibility on the employers and the local communities in receiving these students (Sultana 2022). HEIs all over the world have been developing their students’ employability in numerous ways through curriculum, internships, projects, career support etc., but how are the employers and local societies preparing to receive them?
For this project all four stakeholder groups have been interviewed in the autumn of 2022, which has provided relevant information for developing the project deliverables: 1) an International Alumni Monitoring Tool; 2) an International Talent Journey (integrating career support into the curriculum); and 3) online training modules for staff at HEIs, companies, and third sector actors. The aim is that these dialogues among stakeholder groups along the project 2022-2025 will increase the preconditions for increased collaboration in our respective regions, as well as in Europe and beyond as these deliverables will be available as open access after the project.
Internationalisation of Higher Education with Society
Internationalisation is no longer a purely internal organisational matter but one that is heavily connected to multiple external stakeholders. For HEIs to be able to navigate this complex and networked phenomenon, they need to increase the collaboration with external stakeholders. What they cannot achieve by themselves or in isolation from each other they must achieve through Collective Impact, which in turn requires them to align multiple agendas, resources, and monitoring tools (Kania &Kramer 2011).
One concrete example of such processes is the local employability of international degree students and graduates, which is a crucial area especially for UASs. If done right, this could place UASs at the frontline of IaH and position them as drivers of DEIB. Internationalisation of Higher Education for Society (IHES) calls for aligning HEIs’ third mission with its internationalisation strategy and stresses the need for HEIs to use their internationalisation efforts for service to societies locally and globally (Brandenburg et al. 2019). I would like to propose that HEIs move from “for” society, to “with” society by actively involving external stakeholders in IHE. The Finnish Talent Boost programme and the international INTERLOCALITY project are innovative approaches for collaboration within the complexity of internationalisation. We hope to share the results of both and learn about other initiatives elsewhere to collectively gain more insights into the internationalisation of UASs today and tomorrow.
Sandra Slotte, M.Sc.Ed., Head of Sustainable Career Support, Arcada University of Applied Sciences, sandra.slotte(at)arcada.fi
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