European Internationalization and ‘Money Matters’

International education conferences have evolved into major trade fairs or industry gatherings.

November 3, 2019

For some time now, concerns have been raised about the ways in which money has become a more central consideration when it comes to internationalization in higher education. It’s hard to disagree with this assessment, at least to some extent. It’s evident that some countries -- particularly the United States and Australia -- frame the benefits of internationalization in terms of revenue generation for individual institutions or entire national economies. It’s visible in the evolution of international education conferences into major trade fairs or industry gatherings. It’s apparent in the broad ecosystems of product and service providers that support many different aspects of internationalization activity. There’s no question that there is a bustling market for international education in many corners of the world. Recent analysis from Europe adds some new information to this discussion, highlighting nuances and raising new questions.

Seeking a European Perspective

A recent study produced by the European Association for International Education aims to advance this conversation. The “EAIE Barometer (Second Edition): Money Matters” report draws on data provided by 2,317 professionals working on internationalization at nearly 1,300 different higher education institutions in 45 countries across Europe; 80 percent work in public HEIs. Many respondents (54 percent) hail from research universities; 60 percent identify as international office staff; 18 percent identify as faculty; 14 percent as other administrative staff; 5 percent as deputy heads of HEIs.

While the full “EAIE Barometer” survey generated a wide range of data on internationalization practices, priorities, opportunities and challenges, the “Money Matters” study homed in on a small subset of data that offered the possibility to explore whether financial considerations are perceived as barriers to or drivers of internationalization in European higher education. The bottom line? It’s complicated. On the one hand, there are a few overarching European trends that the data point to, but at the same time, very distinct national and regional realities across Europe paint a much more nuanced picture. A few choice findings illustrate these complexities.

Financial Benefits as a Goal? For Some

On the face of it, financial benefits are not perceived as a top priority for the vast majority of European HEIs. Indeed, financial benefits were cited as a top-three goal for internationalization by just 12 percent of respondents. Four other objectives were named at significantly higher rates -- to prepare students for a global world (76 percent of respondents mentioned this as a top-three goal); improve the quality of education (a top-three main goal for 65 percent); enhance institutional reputation/competitiveness (53 percent); and improve the quality of research (38 percent).

Interestingly, however, when looking at strictly national-level data, there are some very significant differences in relation to financial benefits as a main goal for internationalization. For example, 42 percent of U.K. respondents considered financial benefits to be a top-three main goal for internationalization, while respondents from countries such as Kazakhstan and the Netherlands were much less likely to cite financial benefits as a top goal at just 2 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Prioritizing Activities for Revenue Generation? Possibly

One way of ascertaining how or if financial interests might be important to internationalization in European higher education is to consider the activities institutions identify as priorities in their internationalization strategies and the potential of these activities to generate revenue. Here again, we see Europe-wide averages telling one story and national and regional level data telling another.

For example, international student recruitment, clearly an activity with the potential to contribute revenue in some contexts, was selected by 53 percent of all “Barometer” respondents as a top-five priority. Only the mobility of home students was selected more frequently as a top-five priority (68 percent of all respondents). However, only 36 percent of German respondents considered international student recruitment a top-priority activity, while a whopping 85 percent of U.K. respondents indicate that their institutions consider international student recruitment as a top-five priority. Of course, different policies in regard to collecting tuition from international students can explain these disparities, but there is not always a clear connection between priorities and potential revenue. Institutions in the Netherlands can require international students to pay fees, but only 48 percent of Dutch respondents indicated international student recruitment was a top priority. Additional factors are clearly in play.

Internal and External Limitations? A Mixed Picture

“Barometer” respondents were asked to identify the top three internal and external challenges affecting internationalization at their institutions. In both cases “insufficient budget” was cited most frequently. So, money in this sense is clearly on the minds of European international education professionals. Interestingly, however, budget insufficiency was quite closely followed by a range of some half dozen other issues that respondents considered to be key challenges, including such difficulties as the lack of commitment by colleagues to the internationalization agenda, lack of recognition to individuals by their HEIs for their involvement in internationalization activities, (inter)national competition, national legal barriers, etc.

When it comes to challenges, national-level data are varied, but not as dramatically as was seen in relation to the primacy of financial benefits as a main goal of internationalization. Interestingly, one external financial challenge that is considered highly problematic for some countries and significantly less so for others is that of cost of living. While just 24 percent of all “Barometer” respondents saw high cost of living as a top-three challenge, 60 percent of Finnish respondents saw this as a top-three external challenge, against a mere 3 percent of Slovakian and Spanish respondents registering a concern with this issue, certainly a reflection of varied costs of housing and maintenance among European countries.

Money Matters? It Depends …

So, where does all of this leave us? On the one hand, the “Money Matters” report demonstrates that financial considerations are clearly key to internationalization in Europe, but that there are wide variations in perceptions and realities across different national contexts. Europe-level findings may point to general tendencies or orientations, yet we’re reminded that this is a complex region, not easily reduced to a single set of findings. It is also clear there is much more to learn about the intersection between financial considerations and internationalization in European higher education. New research involving international education professionals and other sources of information will certainly yield additional insights that will help further our understanding of the ways -- and extent to which -- money matters in international education in Europe today.

Laura E. Rumbley is associate director, knowledge development and research at the European Association for International Education.


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