What is going on at ground level?


‘The largest and most geographically representative study of its kind ever undertaken in Europe’ – that is how the first edition of the EAIE Barometer was described when it was published in 2015. At that time, the European Association for International Education (EAIE) was keen to carry out a first-of-its-kind research exercise that looked more closely at the current state of affairs regarding internationalisation of higher education in Europe, as viewed by professionals directly involved in this work.

Earlier this month, the third edition of the barometer was published, which once again offers up a remarkably comprehensive set of insights into the state of internationalisation in European higher education today. As the third iteration in an ongoing series (the second EAIE Barometer was released in 2018), it suggests how perspectives on some issues have evolved over the last decade and presents indications of emerging priorities or concerns.

But how did we get to this third edition? How has the barometer evolved over time and what are some of the shifts that we have seen over the years in regions, respondents and focus?

With more than 2,800 responses from international higher education professionals working in 46 different countries and covering a rather lengthy and wide-ranging set of issues, there is a great deal to report on.

However, when it comes to changes over time, some of the most notable developments pertain to regional response trends, evolutions in how responsibility for internationalisation is organised within institutions, and shifts in thinking about the influence of national and European-level actors.

First, it’s helpful to understand a bit about the previous barometer exercises and what the current edition sought to prioritise.

Past and present

The first iteration of the EAIE Barometer was published almost a decade ago, in 2015. The 2014 innovative-for-its-time survey exercise led to interesting insights into key developments and challenges within the international higher education field, as well as the specific skills and needs of staff involved in internationalisation. The data also allowed for the publication of a spin-off report titled International Strategic Partnerships, which spoke to a clear interest in the issue of partnerships at that time.

Another large-scale survey followed in 2017, and the second edition of the barometer was published in 2018. It built upon the results of the first edition in order to detail changes and growth within the field and highlight trends.

It led to two spin-off reports: Signposts of Success, which delved into nine commonalities shared by institutions where practitioners were most confident about internationalisation’s current and future state, and Money Matters, which focused on the ways in which funding and financial considerations can act as an enabler as well as an obstacle to internationalisation in Europe.

Building on the knowledge gained from the previous EAIE Barometer surveys, this current and third edition addresses themes covered in these previous exercises as well as several new and contemporary issues in internationalisation, in order to reflect on and better understand the field as it looks today.

Key questions this survey aimed to explore include: What is really going on at ground level in these rapidly changing times? How do professionals in the field feel about their roles, their institutions or the policy environments that affect their work? And what levels of confidence do they feel when it comes to the achievability of their institution’s or organisation’s internationalisation goals, or the ability of leadership to lead?

Regional shifts

From the start, the barometer project has examined internationalisation from the point of view of the actors directly involved in international higher education: the professionals operating on the frontlines of internationalisation.

Over the years, this group of respondents has remained the same in that it has continued to consist of people with all types of roles (from administrators and academic staff to heads of internationalisation and others), working in a variety of organisational contexts (from public research universities to national agencies to private specialised institutions), across nearly a dozen different functional areas and representing the full range of career tenure, from fewer than two years of experience in the sector to 15 or more years in the field.

While there has been no noteworthy shift in the types of respondents the survey reaches, there have been shifts when looking at responses by region.

For the most recent barometer exercise, responses were received from all regions of the European Higher Education Area, with Western Europe the most represented in the data and Western Asia the least.

While this is mainly consistent with the past barometer exercises, there have been small increases in survey participation in Eastern and Western Europe. Most striking, though, is the noticeable drop in representation from Northern Europe, including the United Kingdom, since the first barometer report, both in terms of numbers of respondents and as a percentage of total respondents.

Throughout the data, Northern Europe seems to have become a bit of an outlier. It is one of the regions that has the least confidence in their leadership for internationalisation, a smaller-than-average percentage of respondents that sees the need to focus on international development and capacity-building projects, and a generally more pessimistic view on national and European-level policy influence.

It will be enlightening to dive deeper into these findings, especially linked to the political pressures at work in some of these Northern European countries as seen in other recent University World News coverage, including an article about an EU project to explore the impact of nationalism on higher education freedoms, Hans de Wit’s article “Competing for students: Global North gives up its privilege”, and De Wit and Philip Altbach’s “Student mobility? Uncertainty abounds after political change”.

Noticeable changes in organisation and influence

In addition to regional variations, other indications of how internationalisation is evolving may be discernible in two other key areas.

Firstly, the organisation of responsibility for internationalisation in a single central office or with a single centralised team has decreased notably and consistently since the first iteration of the EAIE Barometer in 2015.

Just 24% of respondents reported this type of configuration in 2023, as compared to 35% in 2018 and 51% in 2015. Half of all 2023 respondents indicate that responsibility for internationalisation is currently structured instead around “coordinated central and decentralised teams”.

Secondly, while still significantly important, the influence of both national and European-level actors may be slowly waning.

A majority of respondents sees national (58%) and European-level (53%) authorities as either ‘highly influential’ or ‘influential’ when it comes to being drivers of their institution’s goals for internationalisation. Yet, in 2015, 68% of respondents felt that the national policy level exerted a strong or relatively strong influence on their institution’s internationalisation policy, and 66% perceived the same regarding EU-level influence.

This could be the result of increased autonomy, greater internationalisation maturity or different factors. Moreover, in a clear nod to the wide diversity of realities across Europe, there are real differences in the data between countries and regions on this point. We look forward to exploring this further.

Taking into account the ever-changing political climate in Europe, and the ambitious agendas for economic competitiveness, digitalisation and other objectives, it will be fascinating to see what institutional leaders, policy-makers and the field at large make of these trends, as well as the wider picture offered by the EAIE Barometer on internationalisation in European higher education from the frontlines.

Jody Hoekstra-Selten is knowledge development officer at the European Association for International Education and Laura E Rumbley, PhD, is director, knowledge development and research, at the European Association for International Education (EAIE). Click here to get access to the full EAIE Barometer report, or check out the executive summary.

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