The sub-field of international alumni affairs is a relatively new addition to the landscape of higher education, particularly outside the elite sphere of Oxbridge and the Ivy League. These privileged institutions have seen relatively high numbers of international students enroll for many years, and, through a combination of university-driven and alumni-driven initiatives, have gradually developed a formalized alumni presence in any number of countries worldwide.
Often, this alumni activity takes place under the auspices of an alumni club (sometimes referred to as an alumni network, chapter, or association), which frequently elects a president and governing board, operates a membership list and newsletter, and holds semi-regular events in the region. The number of international alumni, of course, vary among institutions: in 2016, Harvard University calculated 57,939 alumni worldwide, over half of whom were products of Harvard Business School. In the same year, Cornell University estimated that it had approximately 17,000 alumni with primary addresses outside of North America, and King’s College London currently notes that it has “over 48,000 overseas alumni” in total.
The benefit to international alumni is a continued tie to their alma mater, social or professional networking connections with fellow alumni and often the opportunity to be engaged with some aspect of university operations by recruiting or interviewing prospective students, or by mentoring current students or recent graduates.
A smaller set of larger alumni clubs also engage in direct service to their local communities; for instance, Yale University operates a “Day of Service” program, which in 2017 included alumni-led activities including a London-based project with the British Refugee Council, an environmental protection project in Tehuacán, Mexico, and a YWCA fundraiser in Taipei. Alumni club affiliation facilitates the sense of “insider” access to current and future institutional developments, sometimes quite directly via site visits from senior level administrators or faculty. This engagement means that alumni are more familiar with (and invested in) the specific options available to them, should they be inclined to donate: they may choose to support student scholarships, residence hall renovation, a faculty position in their former discipline, or an innovation institute.
Universities, in turn, benefit from the often-noted three pillars of alumni engagement: time, treasure, and talent. That is to say, institutions benefit most obviously from the financial contributions of alumni, but also from the time invested by alumni in the student recruitment process (saving admissions offices time and money that would otherwise be spent on employee travel), and the accumulated talent of alumni, which can be utilized in career networking for students and alumni alike. For instance, Harvard University operates a biannual Global Networking Night, open to current students and alumni, located in 80+ locations around the world. Many schools, including the University of Cape Town, offer an online platform for students and alumni to exchange job tips, job listings, both questions and guidance virtually.
In order to demonstrate the complexity of international alumni affairs “on the ground”, it seems worthwhile to parse the situation in a particular national context. I offer here a brief analysis of the operations of international universities in Austria, focusing on the presence of the top 50 institutions as ranked by Times Higher Education in 2017. This is by no means an endorsement of the ratings, simply a useful starting point for inquiry; indeed, this would be an interesting exercise for any country, placing results in the context of student mobility ratios, among other factors. Further, while an attempt has been made to review publicly available information about relevant university alumni activities, this is not an exhaustive inventory. It is possible that there are examples of universities that previously operated alumni groups in Austria that are now inactive, defunct or that are under development.
The numbers: of the top 50 THE institutions reviewed, 15 appear to have alumni clubs, networks, chapters or associations based in Austria, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Tokyo, University of Toronto, London School of Economics, Columbia University, Yale University, Harvard University, MIT, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins, ETH Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Oxford and Cambridge (that operate a joint alumni society).
An additional four institutions maintain a regional contact or global ambassador, an individual alumna/us who serves as point of contact for alumni in the region; this list includes the University of California at Berkeley, University of Wisconsin at Madison, King’s College London, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. New York University does not operate a university-wide alumni club in Austria, although the NYU School of Law does. This leaves 30 of the top 50 THE-ranked universities without an easily identifiable Austria-specific presence – perhaps surprising given the relative wealth and global scope of these institutions.
The landscape of international alumni activities in Europe extends, of course, beyond the top 50 THE list and beyond Austria. Some institutions operate continent-wide alumni clubs or chapters; this list includes Australian National University and the University of Otago. Other universities operate a number of European alumni clubs, albeit in larger countries: Waseda University notes twelve alumni groups operating on the continent. Still others— American University in Cairo, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and University of the West Indies —have only one alumni club in Europe, often in the United Kingdom.
It seems clear that growth in this field is inevitable as a source of monetary contributions, given that private funds will be more urgently sought by private and public universities alike. As institutional structures in development and alumni affairs offices evolve, so too will operations on the ground. How will these operations overlap and intersect in, say, a small country such as Austria? This ecosystem—and others—certainly merits further inquiry.
Lisa Unangst is a graduate student and research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.