One of the first things you realize when studying how institutions deal with the process of internationalization is how fragmented authority actually is in Canadian universities – to the point where you sometimes have to wonder whether anyone’s actually in charge of the whole operation.
Part of the reason for this fragmentation is that internationalization isn’t a single activity, but rather a process that affects a whole range of other activities in which universities normally engage. To the extent that internationalization is about research connections, it tends to get run through a VP Research office. To the extent it’s about recruiting students, it’s typically a purpose-built unit reporting to a Provost, but functionally linked (often uncomfortably) to the Admissions office. To the extent that it’s about attracting foreign faculty, it’s completely ad hoc, and run by departments according to their own needs.
To the extent that internationalization is about creating agreements/MOUs with institutions all over the world, well, that’s a dog’s breakfast, because these agreements don’t all deal with the same issues. Some are about exchanges, some are about one-way student mobility (e.g., 2+2 agreements), others are about research collaboration, etc. etc. And because these agreements are a dog’s breakfast, it’s not always clear which bit of the university is in charge. Sometimes it’s bottom-up: faculty members can propose agreements based around their own research interests; other times it comes from a purpose-built office that may or may not take any account of researchers’ interests.
Now, it’s not quite true to say that “no one’s in charge” of internationalization, because every one of these processes has someone in charge, at least nominally. Operationally, identifiable people are in charge of recruiting international students, dealing with international student services, etc. But it’s very rare to see anyone knitting the work of these various processes together into a coherent whole. That is to say, there is lots of operational authority in internationalization, but very little in the way of strategic authority over internationalization.
In many places, this – remarkably – is seen as a plus. A lot of people in international policy think “decentralization” is a good thing per se, because operational authority should lie closer to centres of real expertise, rather than being bottled up in a single office somewhere, so that institutions can be nimble in responding to opportunities. That’s certainly true from the perspective of operational effectiveness, but what has largely been lost is the ability of institutions to steer internationalization policy across the various areas in a common way. Too often there is no one making sure that what’s being done in international recruitment ties in with what is being done in research collaborations, or international mobility agreements, and so forth.
Where institutional coherence is abandoned, “internationalization” can thus look a lot like an excuse for administrators to swan around the world to no obvious discernible purpose to anyone inside the organization. This situation pushes cynicism of internationalization well above general faculty levels of skepticism about administration.
All of which is to say: high-quality internationalization requires someone to steer all the various activities in a common, self-reinforcing manner. Institutions don’t need to create a VP of Internationalization to achieve this; in many cases, a Provost or Vice-Provost could do just as good a job, depending on institutional culture and current priorities (the occasional support of an engaged President doesn’t hurt, either). But what is needed is sustained attention from someone who has the clout to demand some policy coherence. Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s lacking on many campuses.