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Can we measure global engagement in higher education?

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The GEI includes data typically only published for home students, such as continuation rates and proportions of students in study and employment

The newly developed Education Insight Global Engagement Index, to be launched at this week’s PIE Live, aims to capture the multifaceted nature of UK universities’ international connections with students, their communities and higher education institutions globally.

Most universities in the UK have an internationalisation or global engagement strategy. These strategies typically cover a wide range of activities, overlapping institutional teaching and research strategies and include, among other areas, languages; internationalisation of the curriculum; study abroad; international research and teaching partnerships; international students’ graduate outcomes; capacity building and engagement with ODA countries and, of course, international student recruitment.

While the rhetoric which surrounds internationalisation usually considers many of these broader dimensions of global engagement and highlights benefits to individual students and staff, to universities and to local, national and international communities and economies, it can be frustrating that the overarching measure of a successful strategy is often viewed as the number of international students recruited or the income derived from their tuition fee payments.

It is easy to understand the policy and institutional preoccupation with international student recruitment. Our universities’ success in attracting international students over the past 30 years has allowed them to expand, improve teaching provision and, of course, subsidise research. The higher education exports generated from student fees support the local economy, create thousands of jobs, and give an ongoing boost to the tourist industries.

But university governing bodies, PVCIs and international directors have also lacked data to support, challenge and measure the impact of broader elements of their strategies beyond just the number of students recruited. Governing bodies often look to external measures such as the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework. The latter is indifferent to international students in its outputs despite the value international students, their parents and overseas governments erroneously place on TEF ratings.  At the same time, PVCs for research and for teaching also make use of the REF and TEF to make their cases for institutional support.

“Outside of the simple counting of student numbers, it is difficult to take an holistic view of global engagement”

Vice-Chancellors and university governing bodies, in particular their lay members, are often obsessed with league tables, perhaps seeing them proxies for share price indices. However, most of these league tables exclude universities’ global footprints, such as staff, students, campuses and operations in another country. And while some of the league tables happily count the inward mobility of students from overseas as a measure of global outlook, they fail to pay any attention to the outward mobility and international experiences of domestic students.

So outside of the simple counting of student numbers, it is difficult to take an holistic view of global engagement and assess the impact of the totality of an education institution’s international activities and compare best practice.

This is where the the Education Insight Global Engagement Index comes in. The GEI endeavours to invite a conversation about global engagement in higher education and aspires to support the development of individual institutional strategies. The index covers a wide range of activities and as such, HEIs can focus on measures relevant to them and ignore those that bear little importance to their individual strategies.

The GEI comprises two parts: (i) student engagement and (ii) research and sustainable development. The student engagement section looks at the diversity of the student body on campus; the proportions of international students; students studying towards an award offshore; how international the curriculum is and participation in study abroad experiences. It attempts to widen the lens through which global engagement is sometimes viewed and includes data which is typically only published for home students, such as continuation rates and proportions of students in study and employment.

The section on research and sustainable development considers the proportions of non-UK staff in junior and senior academic roles; research produced in international collaborations; and the carbon footprint of academic travel in relation to the student enrolments.

“We want the GEI to be useful in evidencing the broader impact of being globally engaged”

Global engagement with ODA countries is considered throughout the composite index. UK HEIs make a significant contribution to the development and capacity building of higher education institutions globally through teaching partnerships, joint doctoral and masters’ programs and research collaborations. The GEI attempts to identify such contributions. While some of the measures are well established, others signal our attempt to engage in a discussion which can improve our collective understanding and identification of best practice in areas such as internationalisation of the curriculum and support for students from ODA countries.

We have avoided the temptation of turning the GEI into yet another league table. And by making it freely available through The PIE we hope that fellow professionals and decision-makers use the GEI as a tool to understand and better explain the outcomes of their strategies and colleagues’ work. We want the GEI to be useful in evidencing the broader impact of being globally engaged to lay members of governing bodies, for example in improving student progression rates or developing research impact with partners in developing countries, and for governing bodies to be better equipped to support and challenge investment in internationalisation of their institutions.

At the national level, most discussions focus on the benefits international students bring to our economy while their successes and achievements often remain unnoticed. Publishing and sharing international students’ graduate outcomes and achievements shine a light over an overlooked success story of the UK higher education.

Janet Ilieva is founder and director of Education Insight, a research consultancy specialising in international higher education. Janet’s research focuses on global student mobility, national policies and regulatory environment for higher education engagement, university partnerships and transnational education. 




Vincenzo Raimo is a global higher education specialist who has held senior roles at the universities of Nottingham (International Office Director) and Reading (Pro-Vice Chancellor for Global Engagement) where he was also Chairman of RUMAL Reading Sdn. Bhd., the University’s subsidiary in Malaysia operating its EduCity campus. Enzo was appointed Chief Relationship Officer for Unilodgers, the world’s largest student housing hub, in October 2019. 


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