Internationalisation and inclusion in the age of COVID: You are our ‘VIP’

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives in ways that none of us could have imagined. The impacts of the pandemic on the various aspects of our personal and professional life continue to emerge. Much has been said about how business schools needed to adapt to accommodate digital transformation. However, questions for business schools were not solely about teaching and learning, but also about community, co-curricular offers, and added value activities that often were delivered in-person and through physical (rather than digital) means. One such area is internationalisation – a key area for many business schools. Here at Leeds University Business School, we have used the momentum caused by the pandemic to accelerate our digital transformation, and while solving this conundrum of offering an international experience during this time, we found that the digital delivery led to positive change, particularly impacting inclusivity.

Our first-hand experience started in July this year, when we organised a Virtual International Programme (VIP 2020) which was themed ‘responding to changing environments’. This was a substitute programme to our traditional physical international study tours for our postgraduate students, which has been a pivotal mechanism for the School to provide an enhanced international learning experience.

The week-long programme aimed to expose students to the day-to-day realities of organisations in an international setting (lectures and company visits), acquire intercultural and cross-cultural skills and knowledge, and facilitate the development of students as global citizens. This year, instead of taking the students to see the world, we brought the world to our students utilising our international networks of universities, industry partners, and alumni. Through organising this programme, we learnt several important factors:

Internationalisation without borders

Internationalisation is at the heart of everything we do as a University and as a business school. We are committed to embedding an international dimension across all of our activities. We were able to bring our global partners and our students together via the VIP 2020 programme. It facilitated both learning and a virtual social space to connect and share experiences. Whereas traditional study tours enable a deeply immersive experience, they are often limited to a single context at any given time. The virtual programme, by breaking through the barriers of time and location, resulted in students being able to obtain knowledge and insights from speakers across 20 different countries.

Inclusiveness

Study tours provide an excellent opportunity to enhance student learning and provide an international experience; however, there is not only a capacity issue (i.e. finding suitable placements, locations, etc.) but numerous barriers that prevent all students from participating in such international experiences, such as caring commitments, financial constraints, health issues, and many others. Consequently, these programmes naturally excluded a not insignificant part of the student cohort. The VIP 2020 extended the reach and also accelerated the engagement of students with more countries within a short period of time. Compared to the capped numbers of students who could participate in an international study tour, the virtual international programme democratized access and attracted 743 participants who were actively engaged over the week. The school is particularly proud of the inclusivity that this programme has brought to our students and alumni, as the scalability of the digital programme meant that it was also offered to the business school alumni community. None of which could not have been achieved with physical tours.

Sustainability

A positive externality of going digital is the impact this programme had on sustainability.  Sustainability in higher education has and will be a major topic, with several studies debating the contradiction of ‘Going Global’ and ‘Going Green’. Here at the University of Leeds, sustainability is an integral part of our operations, and we aim to embed it through engagement, collaboration, and innovation. The VIP 2020 programme proved that virtual experiences can bring about a valuable and positive student experience, but in a sustainable manner. This type of programme will certainly contribute towards the University’s commitment to a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030.

Overall, we have learnt a lot through this experience, and it was not without its challenges. However, students’ feedback emphasised how the Business School rose to the challenge, reacted to the situation in a timely manner, and provided valuable opportunities that have enhanced their degree beyond the core academic programme and which gave them a ‘valuable insight’ into the business world during these unprecedented times.