Does Your School Have an International Strategy?

Hawawini argues that most business schools do not truly have an international strategy; they lack in their aims a balance of both "international reach" and "international richness."

Does Your School Have an International Strategy?

If strategy is a top-down, coherent plan to achieving a school's mission while taking into account the constraints the school faces, then most business schools do not have an international strategy.

A closer look at what schools refer to as their international strategy is often a collection of bottom-up, uncoordinated international initiatives, many of which have been launched opportunistically in response to offers from foreign business schools to establish student exchange agreements and dual degree programs, or requests from agencies of foreign governments to establish a branch campus in their territory. The motive to go ahead is often to grow revenues, increase the school’s size, and raise its visibility abroad in order to attract international students to the home campus or simply to meet an accreditation requirement.

Surprisingly, even though designing and implementing a mission-driven international strategy is one of the most challenging academic and economic activities a school can embark on, it is also one of the most frequent initiatives that heads of business schools put on top of their agenda. Why prioritize an endeavor that, if done right, takes considerable time and planning to carry out? This paradox can be explained by invoking a simple cost-benefit argument. Announcing that a school wants to be international is an uncontentious long-term objective that should raise the institution’s visibility and signal that even though the school is local, regional, or national, it is fully aware of the international dimension of business education and research and intends to engage in the process. And because internationalization is a multi-step, incremental process, it can be launched with relatively low-cost initiatives, such as the intention to internationalize part of the curriculum and the student body, and the goal to establish collaboration agreements with higher education institutions from around the world.

What do we mean when we refer to a school’s international strategy? And how should a school formulate and implement an effective international strategy? I argue in my recent book that this process should be examined along two dimensions I call “international reach” and “international richness.” International reach is an indicator of the breadth of an institution’s portfolio of international activities that includes attracting foreign students and faculty on its campus, sending its students and faculty abroad, launching dual degree programs and research projects with foreign institutions, forming academic alliances, and opening campuses abroad. But having a broad international reach is not enough to become truly international. International richness is also required. This is an indicator of the degree of international diversity of the institution’s student body and faculty. It is measured not only by the number of different nationalities present on campus but also by the extent to which there is no dominant nationality or cultural group on campus. The real challenge here is not to attract as many different nationalities as possible but to make sure that none dominate.

The issue of cultural dominance is indeed crucial when designing an international strategy. It generally affects business schools based in large countries—such as the United States, China, India, and Brazil—that cannot admit too many foreign students because schools in these countries must respond first to the strong demand for education from their local students. Consider, for example, a classroom in a U.S. business school where 70 percent of the students are Americans and 30 percent are foreigners coming from a large number of different countries. Keep in mind that foreign students enroll in a school located in the United States because they want an American education, not an international one. And their objective upon graduation is generally to get a job in the United States, not outside of it. It is not surprising, therefore, that they want to learn the American way of thinking and doing things. They tend to adopt a U.S. viewpoint in class discussions and are often hesitant to share with their classmates an alternative perspective drawn from their home-country experience. I refer to this phenomenon as the “assimilation trap,” a condition that could create a pernicious side effect because American students get the false impression that foreigners think like they do. This clearly mitigates the original objective of having international students in the classroom to expose the locals to different points of view.

How can the assimilation trap be attenuated, and what should be the right balance between international reach and richness in a school’s international strategy? Here are a few suggestions.

  • To alleviate the assimilation trap, the school should increase the number of foreign students of the same nationality in a program rather than increase the number of different nationalities by admitting one or two students from the same country. A larger number of foreign students with the same nationality will raise their confidence to express a different perspective drawn from their country of origin. To illustrate: In a program with 100 students, 70 of whom are American, it is better to have 30 students with, say, three nationalities evenly represented (roughly 10 students per nationality) than 30 students with 30 different nationalities between them.
  • Another suggestion is to train faculty, including foreign faculty members who are not immune from the assimilation trap, to become aware of the nuances of cultural diversity and familiar with the techniques required to facilitate exchange in a multicultural setting.
  • A final consideration is to implement an online program. Online programs can also help overcome the assimilation trap because the students who join an interactive virtual classroom remain in their home country and stay embedded in their local environment while attending their classes. Contrary to the case of a physical classroom where students are affected by the culture and the environment of the country in which the host institution is located, students in a virtual classroom are immune from the assimilation trap when doing their group work because they can interact with one another online while they are still based in their respective home countries and work environments.

What should be the right balance between international richness and international reach in formulating a school’s international strategy? There are a number of alternative international strategies based on their mix of international richness and international reach. At one extreme is the truly global school with an international faculty and a highly diverse student body (say, about 5 percent from the same country) who can circulate easily between interconnected campuses located in each continent around the world. At the other extreme is a large number of home-grounded schools with limited reach (say, some international student exchange programs and collaboration agreements) and richness (no more than, say, 20 percent of international students). Between the global and the home-grounded models lie a number of other international strategies with a different mix of reach and richness.

The truly global strategy is particularly difficult to implement, and one could argue that this type of institution has yet to emerge. The international strategy of home-grounded schools—whose fundamental mission is to educate domestic students and help them become effective global citizens—should focus on the successful implementation of a limited number of well-designed, high-impact internationalization initiatives. These schools should avoid claiming that their aim is to become truly international, an objective that will only sidetrack their attention and dilute their limited resources.

Gabriel Hawawini is a professor and former dean at INSEAD and author of The Internationalization of Higher Education and Business Schools: A Critical Review, reviewed in the January/February 2017 issue of BizEd magazine.