Developing Effective International Strategies

“Strategy is about more so much more than glittering generalities or the constraining rigidity of fixed plans”

With the sector facing unprecedented challenges – and with internationalisation at the heart of many of these challenges – now is a critical time to think deeply about what constitutes an effective internationalisation strategy.

A recent review of some 52 university strategies undertaken by Goal Atlas found that nearly two-thirds of these ended in 2021.  When I spoke at the annual conference of the British Universities’ International Liaison Association (BUILA) in July, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my session on developing effective international strategies in uncertain times was the largest attended session of the conference.

Clearly, there is both a need and an appetite for strategy. But what makes a strategy a good strategy?

Large amounts of money and time are often spent in producing glossy corporate Strategy brochures and crafting the precise wording of internal vision statements. These documents certainly have their uses. However, if our internationalisation strategies are going to stand up to unpredictable events such as Brexit then we need to think less in terms of product (i.e. the strategy document), and more in terms of strategy as an on-going process.

Developing and implementing a strategy is an iterative and people-centred process of change. A smart approach to strategy will begin to embed some of the desired changes before the development phase is completed. This will help to energise staff, providing momentum and insight for subsequent implementation activities.

From the outset, we need to consider how we might best involve our students, staff and external partners and secure institutional approval. Some practical suggestions can be found in Strategy and Planning in Higher Education published by HESPA and Routledge. You can access a pre-publication version of the relevant chapter here.

Integrating Design and Delivery 

‘The strategy was fine, it was the just the implementation that was the problem

I often hear this as a professional strategist, and it never fails to annoy me.  Strategy delivery doesn’t just happen automatically; development and delivery must be considered as two sides of the same coin.

Thought should be given to the implications for delivery when formulating your international strategy.  This doesn’t mean detailed operational planning in every area, but unless you give some thought to how you are actually going to deliver, then what you will have is not a strategy, but a fantasy.

This thinking underpins the current Brightline initiative sponsored by The Economist which promotes good practice principles shared by leading global organisations. It’s also consistent with the approach advocated by Richard Rumelt in his book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. Rumelt argues that all strategies must identify and integrate three core components: the fundamental challenge that must be addressed, the guiding policy or approach to tackling the challenge, and practical action planning.

If you are developing a new strategy for international recruitment it will be helpful to be clear about the critical challenges you face (e.g. opportunities and threats in key student markets); your guiding policies (e.g. whether you will employ agents, increase direct recruitment or develop new partnerships); and your action planning (e.g. key dates and responsibilities). Thinking about how these three key aspects inter-relate will help to keep your strategy coherent and grounded.

 Telling Stories

Stories structure, enrich and, at their most powerful, transform organisational reality. In this sense, organisations are the stories which are told.  It’s no different for universities. If you want to play your part in developing a successful strategy, then you must be able to tell compelling stories about why internationalisation matters.

One of the most inspiring stories which I’ve heard recently is that of Chloe Nugent, a student at Ulster University. Chloe submitted a remarkable video which explained what the opportunity to visit China would mean to her and the hope that her ambition would help inspire and reduce barriers to those who have faced similarly challenging circumstances.

Organisations are the stories which are told – It’s no different for universities

Embodying the University’s strategic commitment to educational opportunity and global engagement, this is exactly the sort of story which needs to be told in order to bring internationalisation strategies to life. Strategy is about more so much more than the glittering generalities of aspirational rhetoric or the constraining rigidity of fixed plans. An effective strategy needs to be skillfully navigated.

Good luck in charting your course!

John Pritchard is Director of Strategic Planning at Durham University and played a pivotal role in developing the University’s 2017-2026 Strategy, which has been recognised as an exemplar of good practice. He is Chair of the Russell Group Directors of Strategy and Planning.