Internationalisation Post-COVID: what the new “International” might look like

The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has clearly thrown the world into a state of uncertainty about the future. For business schools, this is a very challenging and worrying time for internationalisation activity. Not being able to easily recruit students from overseas, providing opportunities for students and staff to travel to improve and broaden their experiences is a clearly a severely limiting factor to delivering on international objectives and pledges. Simply put, there is no international activity in real, physical terms – and for some institutions, the drastic decline in international recruitment will have unfortunate financial consequences.

Yet, internationalisation still exists. International students are, on the whole, still registered and attending online classes, overseas collaborative partnerships, programmes, provisions, research, business engagement and impact all still remain - and indeed international recruitment is still continuing.

But as countries and regions begin a slow and complex journey out of lockdown I believe the way we define and lead internationalisation will change post-pandemic.

Firstly, the past 10 weeks have clearly shown that international now also means online and digital. For many business schools, the transition to online teaching has broadly been a success and has worked very well within a short timeframe. This is because business schools have and always will be comfortable with the usage of technology in the workplace – after all, it is what we routinely teach to our students and communicate to companies. More importantly, technology enhanced learning (TEL) has been a cornerstone of effective teaching and learning innovation in our part of the sector for the last 20 years. Thus, if not already, all business schools have increased their international footprint and reach overnight through digital means without setting foot out of their front door.

Secondly, internationalisation should instead be re-termed as Global Reach (or similar). Why the difference? Semantically, global defines an entirety whereas international usually means overseas. At the moment, international engagement – especially in terms of students – is truly without borders so, should actually be global given we are experiencing an agnostic, borderless awareness, appreciation and need to engage with each other. All countries and regions are in some sense, equally distant. Geography has become an oxymoron!

Thirdly, we will need to become better at identifying and navigating our way out of the current Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) situation. International strategy will need to be more agile, flexible and futures-based than ever before. It is clear that COVID-19 will not be a short term condition and situation and that this may be a long-term background disease. Thus, those involved in international efforts need to become skilled at using futures and forecasting approaches and models. For example, using the eponymous Johari’s window, as “internationalists” we should learn to frame and make better sense of the array of known and unknown factors before us.

Up until now, I believe most internationalisation efforts have fallen into one of two categories. One type of internationalisation which might be termed as “known knowns” (e.g. strengths in ERASMUS student / staff exchange). Alternatively this could be exemplified through using the term in the title of the school – “ACME International Business School”. A second form of internationalisation is more opaque – the so-called “unknown knowns” (e.g. safeguarding key / high value research collaborations with other institutions or companies). Here, for a number of reasons, institutions may be cautious or apprehensive about sharing and identifying their overseas partnerships – either because they feel they are unsubstantial or are worried about losing them to competitors and peers.

But post-COVID, noting international is both digital and global, business schools need to become more comfortable with the remaining two dimensions of internationalisation.

The “known unknowns” in this context, are those efforts and strategies which we might be blind to but which are recognised by others as an area of opportunity. For example, this might include historical or lapsed overseas partnerships and recruitment markets which were once redundant but might now be relevant and appropriate again. Lastly, the “unknown unknowns” of internationalisation is where there will be the most challenge but also the greatest opportunity. In this quadrant, the points above notwithstanding, we will need to use our skills of self- and shared-discovery in order to redefine what internationalisation truly is and how it will work for each of our institutions. Internationalisation will therefore need to include a greater collaboration, discussion and development with key stakeholders (students, academic and administrative staff, partners, accrediting bodies).

In sum, international in the future will mean very different things to each institution – but where for collaboration and engagement’s sake, we will need to learn to share our definitions and objectives a lot more openly.

That is, perhaps, one certainty we can predict in these strange times.

By Professor Amir Sharif, Associate Dean (International & Accreditations), School of Management, Faculty of Management Law and Social Sciences, University of Bradford