In focus: Internationalisation
Globalisation has meanwhile affected all areas of our life, from personal relationships and education to the world of work. Universities are international institutions by definition. This is mainly due to their core functions such as teaching and research and their commitment to offering education and training based on the latest research findings and international developments.
For more than 30 years, internationalisation in European institutions of higher education has been supported by the European Commission’s programmes for the mobility of university students, which at present allows millions of people to study abroad. Erasmus+ has enabled many students to study abroad and hone their personal and professional skillset.
Every year our students, faculty and staff take advantage of Erasmus+ mobility opportunities, to gain experience abroad or to work with and learn from international guests at the St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences.
International links have been an integral part of the higher education landscape for universities as well as their students and researchers for a long time. Opening up perspectives beyond provincial and national borders broadens horizons and raises the quality of teaching and research.
European exchange programme
Close to four million students, teachers and researchers have decided to take up such an opportunity in the 31 years since the EU-funded Erasmus programme was set up. In 2016 alone, 725,000 mobility applications were processed in the higher education sector.
“Student mobility is firmly on the rise, in both directions – in terms of incoming students and outgoing students. With the proportion of foreign students standing at 20%, there is no doubt that Austria is an international location for studying,” says Stefan Zotti, Director General of the OeAD.
But student mobility is not the only factor that Zotti takes into account with regard to internationalisation at universities. Mobility amongst teaching, research and administrative staff is just as important.
We want to see universities defined by mobility, in which everyone is touched by experience from other countries. Our universities educate people that need to compete internationally. In an export-orientated country like Austria, this is even more important than elsewhere. If a university in this context were to focus only on its own small region, that would be parochial.
Zotti has a number of recommendations for Austria’s higher education institutions: strategic partnerships that don’t only exist on paper, but profit from complementary specialisations at the institutions; curricula that follow international trends and contain state-of-the-art teaching methods; and degree programme designs that facilitate semesters abroad rather than hinder them – and, “Internationalisation needs to be made a responsibility of the highest levels of management. It is not enough if two professors and a department head are happy to travel abroad – university management must pursue internationalisation as part of overall strategic orientation,” he explains.
International exchange at St. Pölten UAS
65 incoming exchange students were welcomed to St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences last year, meaning that 18 different nationalities enriched everyday life at the university. There were incoming students from Germany, France, Belgium, Finland, Spain and the Czech Republic. Three came from the USA, the most distant country of origin among visiting students.
76 St. Pölten UAS students spent at least one semester at a university abroad in the 2017/18 academic year. They went to 21 different countries, with the most popular destinations being Ireland (12 students), Germany (nine students) and Belgium (seven students).
People from more than 20 different countries work at St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences, and the university is in frequent contact with more than 130 partner universities. Cooperations range from student and staff international mobility programmes to joint degrees and research projects.
A number of things are being done at St. Pölten UAS to enable this kind of lively exchange. One example is the European Project Semester (EPS), offered in cooperation with a network of 18 European partner universities.
Alois Frotschnig, Head of the Department of Media and Digital Technologies, is responsible for this exchange project. “The EPS is a model that is unique in Austria, and allows students to collaborate internationally and across disciplines – based on their own initiative and parameters, and in English.” The EPS makes settling in much easier for guest students who come to St. Pölten without the necessary knowledge of German. At the same time, Austrian students benefit from the different perspectives and cultural outlooks that visitors bring with them.
St. Pölten UAS has been part of the EPS project since 2014. Frotschnig sees further potential in mobility for teaching staff. Formats like the International Week and Summer School are a start, but more should be invested in longer term teacher exchanges.
I spent a number of years at a research institute in Spain myself, and found this time highly enriching. As an EPS coordinator it is great to see how visiting students feel more comfortable here with us over time.
Internationalisation as part of the strategy 2021
Various efforts are needed in order to foster internationalisation: more intensive cooperation with universities in other countries, improvements in English language competence, and higher attractiveness for incoming exchange candidates – according to the strategy to 2021 adopted by St. Pölten UAS. One of the strategy’s aims is to attract more international researchers.
Nicole Unger, Head of the university’s Research and Knowledge Transfer service unit since February, has specific proposals for how this could work. “This might mean financial support for short research placements abroad. By contrast, in the case of longer absences we have to ensure that there are structures in place for people returning.”
Here Unger is addressing the issue that concerns many mobile academics: they have to give up a home and establish a new one somewhere else. To minimise the associated risks, universities need to provide appropriate packages for when teaching and research staff return.
Mobility makes us more intellectually flexible. It’s important that the university creates the right conditions.
In order to be able to enjoy the many benefits of mobility – building up networks, receiving input from other researchers, learning about different methods – it isn’t necessarily important to leave the country for an extended period. Attending international conferences can also make a big contribution to internationalisation, according to Unger: “Someone who travels about a bit can pick up many things – and learn from others.”
International research at St. Pölten UAS
Magazine future 09: „Totally international“
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