By virtue, universities have been international institutions from medieval times and have attracted students and scholars from different parts of the world. However, the forceful growth of globalization in the economic sector influenced the behavior of higher education institutions, and placed the process of internationalization into the spotlight. The demand for higher education institutions to become more reactive to the needs of knowledge society, to modernize and innovate became common to all institutions. Undeniably, the importance given to internationalization of higher education institutions has grown over the last years and internationalization is becoming more intimately connected to the core of institutional vision and mission.With this, the need to assure its quality is welcomed and needed. In the literature four different mechanisms to assure the quality of internationalization were identified. These are:
However, efforts to assure quality of internationalization throughout these mechanisms should be properly handled among several key players in the higher education arena. While the state and higher education institutions usually enforce certain standards in order to assure the quality of its teaching, learning and research, these should not be the only stakeholder groups responsible. It is of crucial importance to go beyond the state-institution relationship and include other stakeholder groups that are usually absent from these mechanisms.
If internationalization carries a responsibility for being one of the indicators for the overall quality in higher education (De Wit 2010; Van der Wende 1999, Dittrich and Frederiks 2010), any desire and attempt to internationalize should be accompanied by the responsibility to assess its progress, andits quality. Ideally, most of the activities of internationalization would be a subject of internal or external quality assurance, however this is not usually the case. Van Damme (in Santiago et al 2008, 285) believes that national quality assurance systems are inadequate in dealing with the international aspect of higher education. Initiatives to assure the quality of internationalization are usually embedded only into standardized reporting of mobility-oriented figures or they are undertaken independently by the institutions or individuals within institutions, in a bottom up initiative (Aerden et al. 2012).
In a system such as the Austrian one, stakeholders of higher education enjoy a large degree of autonomy (OeAD 2010) which also includes the ability to design institutional policies for internationalization tailored to meet specific needs, and the ability to involve new institutional actors in policy and at operational levels (Leidenfrost et al 1997). With the rise of university autonomy, issues pertaining to quality assurance should receive more attention. This involves the need to clarify if crucial stakeholders are involved in opportunities which could enhance the quality of internationalization at higher education institutions or not. However, stakeholder groups essential to the quality assurance of internationalization are still somewhat undefined within higher education. By the same token, academic literature also lacks engagement with the extent to which quality assurance of internationalization reflects the key stakeholder expectations. Several researchers (in Auvinen and Mariasingam 2012) warn that the views and perspectives of the stakeholders have not been given significant consideration in planning and implementation of higher education activities and its quality. In addition to this, the absence of individuals and groups directly involved with the improvement of teaching, learning and research is also noticeable (Huston & Paewai, 2013). This practice not only questions the objectivity of quality assurance systems, in regular teaching and research activities, but also questions if responsibility among different stakeholder groups for something that should be an integral part of the quality of teaching and research, such as internationalization, is shared.
With the presumption that higher education institutions want to internationalize and use internationalization as one of the ways to achieve their institutional goals, this research should be able to clearly answer the question: How involved are stakeholders in mechanisms to assure the quality in internationalization of higher education institutions in Austria. Before answering this question, it is essential to firstly (a) examine who are the important stakeholders in the area of internationalization and its quality assurance. As the academic literature is not explicit in identifying such stakeholders, the current research attempts at covering this gap. After that, (b) their expectations regarding quality assurance in internationalization with particular reference to Austrian higher education system are investigated. Finally, more importantly, as was already stressed, this research would emphasize (c) stakeholder involvement in any of mechanisms which could lead to quality assurance of internationalization and pay a close attention to relative inequalities between groups. Finally, how a higher education system and its institutions proceed to identify, prioritize and engage with its communities/stakeholders reflects the level of evolution of universities (Jonbloed et al. 2008, 304). Therefore, analysis of stakeholder involvement in general might have an important implications for higher education institutions. It could provide essential data for the allotment of resources and planning of educational activities so as to increase the satisfaction level of different stakeholders (Zaharie et al. 2011). With this it might be understood as a strategic move and purposeful extension of institutional strengths (Sursock, 2012).
Maintaining good communication with key stakeholders is an essential element of the quality of any organization (Auvinen and Mariasingam 2012) as dialogue with stakeholders is key in learning how the services of organizations are valued and how they could be improved. And while its origins lie in the business sector and its translation into higher education should be made with certain limitation (Jongbloed et al. 2008), the careful re-appropriation of stakeholder theory is relevant for most organizations as the core message of the theory is that the success of a business rests in creating value for its stakeholders. As all stakeholders are important, one can not look at any of them in isolation (Freeman, 2009). In times of market competition and higher responsibility towards its communities organizations need to consider and analyze the influence of their stakeholders (Mainardes et al. 2012). Furthermore, this stakeholder analysis involves three steps: identification of stakeholders, development of the processes that recognizes their respective needs and interest, and establishing and building relationships with stakeholders (p. 1862). This practice is not novel to the higher education arena, as universities are constantly forced to carefully reconsider their role and the relationship with their surrounding communities (Jongbloed et al. 2008). In addition to this, Weick (in Asif and Raouf 2011, 2016) believes any implementation of quality assurance in higher education should as well start with the development of strategic plans, which includes the identification of stakeholders and their requirements.
To accomplish the aim of this research, qualitative approach is selected to address the main questions and create a scene for further discussion on the internationalization and its quality assurance at higher education institutions in Austria. The driving wheel of the qualitative approach is to understand individuals as constructor of reality (Freankel and Wallen 2006) and to answer questions such as „who, what, when, where and how” (Zikmund, 2003, 55). In relation to this approach, interviews were chosen as the most appropriate technique to explore individual thoughts and perspectives on the topic of the research and are conducted in a structured format, to allow comparison between and within seven crucial stakeholder groups in this research. Questions were divided into four parts (identification of main stakeholders to assure the quality of internationalisation in HE system in Austria, expectations regarding the quality of internationalization and their involvement in mechanisms to assure the quality of internationalization). Prior to these three parts, it was important to clarify the definition of most commonly used term in this study, internationalization. This required the exercise of explaining to interviewees how is internationalization defined in the scope of this study, and encourage them to identify set of activities offered which define the state of internationalization in the context of higher education institutions in Austria.
After each interview, the data was transcribed. The transcripts were then analyzed in details, key themes were identified in relation to the research questions, using a method which quantified the data such as counting frequencies of occurrence of characteristics or themes, at the same time reserving its qualitative nature. In relation to this, for one question in particular coding technique was implemented, as to allow easier comparison between answers. Finally, for better visualization of data, Microsoft Excel 2010 and Wordl program were used to create word clouds and with this, highlight the words that appear more frequently in the interview transcripts. In total 24 individuals were interviewed representing seven different stakeholder groups. These seven groups were identified in the literature review as crucial for the topic of this study and are: Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy; The Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria (AQ Austria); Federation of Austrian Industry; Leadership/ Rector’s office; academics; international office and students. Selection of all representatives assured that stakeholders come from the governmental, the educational and the corporate sector. To clarify, representatives from the Rector’s office, academics, international office and student stakeholder group were coming from three different higher education institutions in Austria. It was of crucial importance to grasp the diversity of the Austrian higher education system and to include representatives from institutions of different disciplines and educational setting. For this purpose representatives were selected from a private medical university which offers a variety of postgraduate programs and degree courses, a university of applied science which offers a variety of bachelor and master degree programs in the fields of Applied Life Sciences, Engineering, Social Work, Health and other disciplines and a university for continuing education specifically oriented toward the needs of working professionals.
Finally, having in mind that internationalization is a complex phenomenon realization of which widely varies between different higher education settings and given the absence of a concrete internationalization strategy at the national level in Austria, a wide diversity of international activities driven by higher education institutions was expected. However, no substantial differences were noticed among the representatives coming from the various institutions included in this research. Student exchange was overwhelmingly mentioned by a majority of representatives, and is regarded as a core activity at their originating institutions. Other activities mentioned frequently were percentage of foreign students, cooperation with foreign partners, international lecturers or international curriculum. However some of these activities should be labeled as international with caution, as they include national curriculum offered in English and a high percentage of German and Swiss students being referred to as international students. This illustrates the problem that there is no common agreement by representatives in higher education system on the meaning of internationalization. Also in an attempt to indicate the extent to which higher education institutions in Austria are internationalizing, the answers revealed a puzzling contrast between the current and the desired level of internationalization. Elkin et al. (2005) believe that is important to distinguish and understand the current and the desired level of performance for decision making purposes and to create better investments in activities which could impact the quantity and quality of internationalization. While student exchange might be in its mature stage other activities seem to lack prioritization.
The seven selected groups already mentioned were defined as crucial also by representatives or interviewees included in the research, which was encouraging for the researcher. However, the total number of crucial stakeholders identified was 15 which confirms the expected diversity knowing that higher education institutions established multiple relationships with its communities (Jongbloed et al. 2008). Other groups identified were: Associations which represent universities on the national level, Austrian agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research, The Austrian Science Board, Higher Education Institutions as a unitary stakeholder of all sub groups of stakeholders, Society at large, Program directors, Office of student affairs, Public Relation office and Families of students and academics. According to the collected responses, students are believed to be the crucial stakeholder group in assuring the quality of internationalization at higher education institutions as “the direct leading user of student exchange,” which was the most common activity of internationalization identified by representatives in this research. While the importance of this group did not reveal any surprises, it is expected that groups such as the Ministry receives higher prominece than it did due to the component of funding internationalization activities and high interest in the provision and the quality of higher education to meet the needs of its consumers and society (Jongbloed et al. 2008). The same applies to the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austriawhich as a body of quality control seems to be relevant to many aspects of higher education and quality assurance (Kalvermark and Van der Wende, 1997), yet its importance was barely recognized. While external actors in this research prioritized stakeholders at the national level, academics, international offices and students selected stakeholder groups within the institution. However, these answers could be based on representatives working position at the moment. On the other hand there were differences within the groups. In particular representatives coming from university of applied science gave a high importance to the corporate sectors. This could be explained once on how the profile of an institution have influenced the relations institutions have with stakeholders (Jongbloed et al. 2008).
As much as this it is troublesome in the quest to define quality in higher education (Tang and Hussin 2011), it is necessary to understand it in order to avoid making false projections on the expectations of others and invests in activities that are not of major interest to stakeholders (Shanahan and Gerber 2004).It was not surprising that the student perspective stressed the need for good preparation before the student exchange and indicators that were crucial to their studying process and study life. However, non-of the student interviewed emphasized in particular experiences gained abroad or possibilities for social life as these indicators proved to be commonly mentioned characteristics of a good higher education institution and its activities according to student group in the recent research by Udam and Heidmets (2013). Representatives from international office and academics seemed to prioritize inputs, dealing with pre mobility issues, financial support and teaching staff requirements as those characteristics important for successful internationalization. However, according to the characteristics of quality which are in favor of other stakeholder groups it seems that expectations of students, international officers and academics regarding the quality ininternationalization are situated on the other side of the table and do not overlap with the quality expectations of others to great extent. Typically, students care about individuals advantages and not about the advantages of the nation as much as the Ministry and the AQ Austria, due to their different interest and level in the higher education experience. These differences could also indicate that more cooperation among groups is necessary, while an analysis of commonalities and differences among various stakeholder groups helps to identify areas of current or potential cooperation (Knight 1997, 28). In addition to this Udam and Heidmets (2013) believe that the balance between these groups leads to better implementation of the quality assurance system.
The tool of assuring the quality of internationalization at institutions of higher education in Austria most often referred to by interviewees was the performance agreement. Many higher education systems use it as a tool in which the Ministry and individual institution agree on goals for the period of few years on the basis of on their own situation and national priority in higher education sector, with the aim to achieve improvement of institutions and the system (Yutronic et al. 2010). In Austria, the Ministry and the rector’s office have the right to change or influence decisions stipulated in the agreement and to propose new topics or goals concerning internationalization. The active roles of both of these groups were emphasized by other representatives, particularly in the case of the Ministry, since government still plays a key role in creating the frameworks and opportunities for the internationalization not only in Austria but in most of the countries (Van der Wende 2007, 284). Another mechanism identified to assure the quality of internationalization, annual report, requires involvement of rector’s office and the international office of an institution. While the first is responsible of approving the report before its submission to the Ministry, the international office seems to be partially involved through collecting data on internationalization as a part of the annual report. Other formal tools to assure the quality of internationalization at institutional but also at individual level are the application form for mobility exchange, learning/training agreement documents and the student report. These three documents concern student exchange and involve the work of students and the international office. Finally, several national and international events play a role in assuring the quality of internationalization directly or indirectly. Here, different stakeholders can bring their preferred topics to the floor for discussion. However, while these events are of crucial importance to discuss issues related to internationalization in Austrian higher education system, they usually take place outside of the institutional area, and could serve as evidence to support the view that internationalization is as an isolated exercise (Van Damme 2001).While no other tools have been discussed by more representatives at once, the integration of internationalization through regular quality assessment procedures seems to be an apple of discord between representative from university of applied science and the AQ Austria, who denied that internationalization is included as a distinctive standards and should not be understood as dimension integrated to assure the quality in regular audits and accreditation procedures. However, with that being sad, the role of academics and students, which is usually crucial in external and internal quality assurance procedures (BMWF 2002), is not important at this stage, knowing that assurance of internationalization through regular quality assurance procedures does not exist and should not be understood as a mechanism in use, since internationalization has not been a strong feature of internal subject review (QAA in Westerheijden 2010). This was confirmed also by representatives of both groups, the academics and the students. Judging by this, the absence of AQ Austria should not come as a surprise. However, those who did not opt for the agency as being the crucial stakeholder in assuring the quality of internationalization, might have been driven by the desire to remain free in choosing the agency which supports the university in their quality assurance work (ENQA 2007, 8), since this is a characteristic for Austrian higher education system.In relation to this, academics, are yet another group completely absent from these mechanisms. While one representative from this group stressed that: “quality assurance of internationalization usually takes place through informal dialogue with the students.” Other representative from this group particularly referred to program directors as holding the largest responsibility for assuring the quality of internationalization. It is hard to distinguish out of a statement as such, if academics prefer to leave the responsibility for quality to higher levels and remain resistant to quality assurance. The fact that certain conflicts exists between academics and other stakeholders in higher education regarding the concept of quality is notorious (Kis 2005). Academics are usuallythe critics of quality assurance practices by referring to it “as over-assertive management or bureaucracy, imposed at a distance from the academic practitioner and institutions” (Williams 2009, 51).
Finally, there were conflicting opinions regarding the role and involvement of employers. While the Ministry and representatives from university of applied science seem to be highly supportive of this group, others do not mention them, which might be problematic, having in mind the need for graduates to become more employable (Beso et al. 2008, 6) and the skills needed on the market. This calls for a tight collaboration between representatives from higher education and the corporate sector (Knight and De Wit 1999, 18). However, as already mentioned, collaboration with employers is highly emphasized by representatives from the university of applied science, therefore the importance given to certain stakeholder group may be highly influenced by the perspective taken into consideration (Jongbloed et al 2008).
Finally, as universities in Austria enjoy a substantial level of autonomy, they also have the freedom to set up their own objectives and priorities in terms of internationalization. However these activities should respond to the need of the ever more demanding environment and society, through promoting principles of accountability. Performance agreements, among others, serve as mechanisms of quality assurance and monitoring in many higher education systems and meet accountability principles. In this sense, universities are not completely autonomous, but they share the responsibility for quality of teaching, learning and research with the Ministry. Even though initiatives to assure the quality of internationalization are usually embedded only into standardized reporting of mobility-oriented trends and figures as is the case in other higher education systems (Aerden et al. 2012). Nevertheless, with internationalization included and recognized as an important dimension of the performance agreements, this research also reveals that the quality of internationalization is shared among two groups: the ministry and higher education institutions. The government in Austria is an aid which can potentially enhance internationalization through financial support, creating an internationalization strategy at a national level and by removing bureaucratic procedures, as it is the case in other countries as well (EUA 2013). However, institutions tend to be the driving force of successful internationalization and monitoring at the institutional level. In the case of Austria, this is particularly characteristic, as there is no internationalization strategy at the national level. Finally, the responsibility for assuring the quality of internationalization through mechanism or documents on institutional or individual level includes the work of the rector’s office, international office and students as individuals. These three groups along with the Ministry, seem to play an active role in assuring the quality of internationalization and the overall quality of the mobility exchange, as the core internationalization activity.
While it was an intention of this research to identify those who are involved and those who are not, it was out of the scope to point out on who should play a leading role in assuring quality, as that is still determined by institution, which have the autonomy to choose its own stakeholders and profile. However, what could be highly criticized are the mechanisms to assure the quality of internationalization identified in the Austrian higher education system, which illustrate the quality assurance of one particular activity, student exchange. This raises the issue over the quality assurance of other activities and the reasons for absence of other stakeholders.
Furthermore, it would be of particular interest to see, as Teichler describes (2004, 22) which modes of steering and management are most suitable for the continuing trend of internationalization and if this sharing of responsibilities for quality assurance of internationalization between these four groups is the most suitable manner to assure quality of internationalization also in the future. In the end, higher education institutions have to adapt to certain changes that match the needs of the environments and its stakeholder groups. Student and staff exchange became the landmark instrument and activity of internationalization, however one needs to be aware that internationalization is a more complex and meaningful phenomenon (Aerden 2014).
While new activities of internationalization are continuously emerging across the world, it is important to think in advance on the upcoming trends in the field of internationalization in higher education and its quality, as well as the new stakeholder group that might emerge as a consequence to this. A good example of such an activity is information-communication technology which offers a new provision of education educational opportunities via e-learning for less money, at a greater flexibility, and meeting the international scope of curriculum (Henard et al 2012; Altbach and Knight 2007). It is worth observing that while some argue its quality depends on the pedagogical model employed (Henard et al 2012, 28), this might bring not only the new stakeholder groups to the fore, but introduce of a new mechanisms to assure the quality of this activity. It is indeed likely that in the future, the number of mechanisms as well as the stakeholder groups important for assuring the quality of internationalization will change along with the changing nature of internationalization.
I would like to acknowledge my mentor Dr. Attila Pausits for his support, ideas, guidance and trust in times when most needed. Also my sincere thanks goes to Mag. Wolfgang Sünder and Mag. Silke Weineck for all the help with the interviews. Finally to all consortium members of MARIHE Master program, Florian, Astrid, Laura, Sabina, Xiao Xiao, my dear colleaguesand my family.
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