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“We'll climb that hill no matter how steep"

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“We'll climb that hill no matter how steep"
By Ian Charles
Posted: 2020-04-21T13:03:00Z

Driving along in slow traffic, the GPS tells you what you already know – you're driving in slow traffic – through an annoying red triangle symbol that, every time you get tantalisingly close to it, seems to creep further away again.


That’s me, pondering on how to write some words on the current situation. I keep thinking tomorrow things will become clearer, then a new statistic or horror story pulls me up fast. So, at the risk of becoming totally out of date by the time anyone reads this reflection on where we are and where we might be going with international education, I hope the red triangle eventually starts to move away.


I say “we” – normally one would be reluctant to attempt to speak for everyone in an organisation or institution but I take the liberty of doing so here because without question NIBS members have something uniquely in common – a passion for and commitment to internationalisation in education. Belonging to NIBS is a free choice, and no institution or individual member would want to belong to our wonderful family if they didn’t wholeheartedly share that passion.


Without exaggeration, and trying to avoid the many clichés circulating at present, international education has taken a massive hit. The fundaments of our existence – student and staff mobility, international conferences and events – have come to a complete halt. Duty of care to our students prevents us from recommending an international experience at present, even if it was actually possible for them to go anywhere.


But I refuse to be downhearted, every crisis brings an opportunity, and we will get started again.




The time has come for my sometimes much-derided friends at the forefront of online and remote learning, who are basking in the glory of becoming ‘flavour of the month’. All those traditionalists who condemned e-learning as a gimmick and no substitute for face to face, are now frantically trying to navigate and utilise online learning platforms and protocols. By the time this is all over, blended learning will surely have found a more secure place in every institution as it rightly should. No-one will any longer need persuading that international education can only be delivered through a purely physical international experience.


That said, we have all had the sheer satisfaction and joy seeing the way we, our colleagues and our students, have had our lives immeasurably enriched as a result of spending time in another country and cultural environment. So, without taking away the fact that remote and online learning has come of age and is here to stay, we must – absolutely must – strive to restore some future degree of physical as well as virtual mobility. If nothing else, what does all this do to the much-vaunted statistic that in the past, 20% of student mobility events have resulted in a long-term relationship!


And blaming everything on the virus is to forget how things had already changed incrementally in the last few years, with a consequent huge hit to our dreams and vision of universal internationalisation.


When I retired as President at the NIBS Annual Conference in Breda, Netherlands in May 2016, my opening address was a nightmare. This was partly because I was following the Rector who proceeded to say exactly what I was planning to say, and left me to mumble something about agreeing with him. Anyone who’s experienced this knows how dispiriting that can be.


But more importantly, what was the real nightmare? Well, for me, an incorrigible optimist, it was the first time I found it hard to be upbeat about the state of international education. I think both the Rector and I were pointing to the many parts of the world that were appearing to shut their doors, looking inwards and becoming fearful and mistrustful of outsiders. And this was May 2016, even before the UK referendum on the European Union and the US election later in the year. This is not intended as a political comment, I’m not offering an opinion here on these events. But I think it is fair to suggest that for several years now there has been an increased atmosphere of nationalism and the belief that international co-operation can and in some cases should be discouraged.


Knowing this, if I’m correct, doesn’t necessarily help us to find a way towards the exit of our existential crisis. But I think it’s useful nonetheless not to be distracted into thinking that without the virus everything would be hunky-dory. Indeed, have some of us perhaps been guilty at times of dismissing the fears of those who didn’t see the ‘global village’ as something for them?


We need to be mindful that NIBS members, despite our shared vision and beliefs, operate in different national, societal and political environments. One size does not fit all. We are where we are. (Well, I didn’t promise not to include any clichés).


Good news is this enforced lockdown offers an opportunity to reflect on where we might have gone astray in the past, and how we might make things better in the future.


One example: international student mobility and recruitment. While we retain our idealism and our innate belief that no-one loses and everyone gains by having an international experience, is it not correct that many institutions have seen international students more as a source of funding than as a way to make the world a better place? Has that even led at times to recruitment of large numbers of students from one part of the world who have found themselves housed and socialising in isolation from the rest of the student cohort, most especially domestic students? Yes, we know the challenges: local domestic students having part time jobs and a social life outside the institution, not able or willing to participate in the communal campus community of years gone by. All the same, did some of us to an extent take our eye off the ball, focusing more on meeting recruitment targets than on the original purpose of international education? Were we always mindful of the diverse cultures represented in our classrooms and the way in which these could be leveraged to everyone’s advantage by tapping into them rather than ignoring them?


I said I’m an optimist, therefore I feel energised by the prospect that a new era of internationalisation can come about that will actually concentrate less on quantity and more on quality (by which I mean a genuine strategy to engage with internationalisation rather than simply to tick boxes).


That may mean less international recruitment for now, but that’s not a problem because there can’t really be much at all at present, and take-up again will be almost inevitably be gradual. Won’t it be a joy to be able to tell international candidates, with confidence, that we want them to come because it’s good for them, good for us and good for humanity, rather than simply good for our balance sheet?


And the ones we try to send out – yes, we can give them all the undeniable truths that international experiences enhance employment prospects, reinforce otherwise-thin CV’s, enable in some cases an out-of- season suntan to be acquired – but perhaps we can also spend time telling them that most of all, an international experience feeds and enriches the soul. Everyone who has had an international experience knows this.


There has never been a greater need for an organisation like NIBS, with its family of member institutions and individuals sharing a common purpose to make life better for its stakeholders, internally, locally and regionally – through the promotion and delivery of international experiences. And the supreme quality of NIBS is that every member is on their own journey, collectively and collegiately supported and encouraged by other members, but no-one is judged against the other. Who can say that every student in one institution learning a second language is more or less impressive than enabling an international experience for a small number of students in an institution where their families don’t even know what a passport is, let alone having ventured anywhere outside their local area? 


That is the spirit of NIBS – we work towards enabling the best we can in an international context.  We understand there’s a shared goal but not necessarily a common goal.


I’m always reminded of our founding President, David Gillingham, in his role as an international education manager and as the inspiration behind NIBS. Whenever anyone approached him with an idea or a proposal, his first response was invariably: “Why not?”.


So, let’s take heart from the fact that every crisis creates an opportunity, and whatever the short and medium term brings, we can continue to fight the good fight to enable as many as possible to enjoy a quality international experience in whatever form that takes.


And even if the words of Bob Dylan


Strap yourself
To the tree with roots
You ain't goin' nowhere”


seem sadly appropriate right now, don’t forget these lines appear later in the same song:


“We'll climb that hill no matter how steep
When we come up to it”


Stay safe, everyone. Be patient, all will be well.