18 October 2018

The recent article in The Times Higher Education "Which countries’ HE systems are globalising quickest" (Baker, 2018) discusses the globalisation of higher education and how shifting national policies are changing the nature of internationalisation for their institutions.  Baker illustrates that the UK has “stalled” on the internationalisation scene and discusses the implications of national policy on internationalisation for institutions.   Baker further suggests that flattening market share for the UK is a result of more aggressive policies by some countries to attract international students, namely Canada, Hong Kong, and Australia. 

In this, I disagree and while national policies provide a lens to examine the recruitment of international students to a country, it is not necessarily the only ingredient contributing to particular institutional international student recruitment strategies. 

Indeed, my recent work explored three institutions in Canada, the UK, and Hong Kong to compare their responses to global, national, and competitive forces in their international student recruitment practices.  This showed that the interpretation and responses to national policies are highly localised and that national policy is only one dimension to international recruitment.

To illustrate his point, Baker (2018) provided two recent examples of policy shifts one in the Netherlands and another in Australia in relation to international student recruitment.  This included the implementation or removal of post-study work visas.  However, the institutional context shows policy changes are unique and these responses are based on their internal cultures and their view of competition and as one research participant noted, "Culture trumps strategy".  Not surprisingly, institutional participants in my study viewed government policies as "part of the package", the realities of conducting recruitment in the overseas market.  This reality sets the stage for the recruitment game. In my study of universities in Hong Kong, the UK and Canada, each institution chose aggressive international strategies, irrespective of national policy constraints.  This reaction points to the importance of understanding institutional capabilities to respond to environmental changes rather than focusing on national policies alone.

Instead, in my case-universities, government policies were viewed as the “playing field” to achieve their institutional strategies. This was regardless of whether policies were positive, in the case of Canada with its increasingly flexible immigration policies and overseas marketing; or negative such as in the UK due to the lack of post-study work visa.  However, while Baker argues Hong Kong is a growing globalised HE system, there is a quota system in Hong Kong that restricts the number of international students to institutions.  Despite this restriction, the Hong Kong institution in my study is one of the top international institutions for overseas students and was deemed highly international. This shows that there is more to internationalisation in HE than merely national policies.  Institutional internationalisation strategies and their particular approaches to international students influences the extent of their internationalisation.  While Baker argues that Hong Kong is focused on internationalisation in higher education, it is the behaviours of the institutions themselves that contribute to internationalisation, not macro-level policies.  These findings reinforce the notion that it is not only what the national policies say or do, but also how these policies are interpreted at the institutional level that shapes internationalisation. 

As de Wit (2015) states, the capacity problems that universities face are not be solely at the political or national policy level, but rather at the institutional level.  Likewise my research shows how issues with carrying capacity regarding institutional ability to adapt to increasing demand from international students, shaped the institutions practice of student recruitment.  Institutional capability to deliver an international campus to all students is determined by a mix of national policy, internal cultures, and institutional resources and capabilities.  Therefore, what is needed is an understanding of how institutional practice responds to the national policy context.  My recent work goes beyond Baker’s point, and presents an important starting point to explore the deeper issues that are occurring as global HE systems evolve their international student recruitment strategies.