Roadmaps for National Strategies: Who’s Doing What and Why?

Across the globe, government-sponsored internationalization strategies, policies, and funding helps countries attract international students and boost their own student mobility.
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Determining cause and effect between a government’s international recruitment and internationalization plans and their results is a complex topic, and there is a shortage of good comparative studies on the subject. However, experts say that comprehensive strategies can indeed make a difference in drawing more international students and achieving related goals.

There is no one-size-fits-all reason or strategy, as variables depend on a country’s specific goals and strengths. But, at the very least, the existence of a national strategy acknowledges the importance of international education to a country’s economic, academic, and social interests.

“The mere process of putting the document together forces all sorts of conversations to take place that might not otherwise,” says Nick Hillman, director of the UK-based Higher Education Policy Institute. Hillman helped implement a UK higher education export strategy that took effect in 2013. “In our case, every part of government, including the Prime Minister’s office, had to think about the issue.” 

“[A plan] commits you to go out there with targets, which means other people can hold the government accountable and [it can] increase attention toward addressing any shortcomings,” says Hillman. 

The Many Internationalization Roadmaps

Such internationalization plans are a relatively recent development, says Daniela Craciun, a political science doctoral student at Central European University who completed her dissertation on a comparative analysis of nations’ internationalization strategies. This is in part because there is little research on the effectiveness of actual policies intended to internationalize countries’ higher education systems.

The majority of countries—80 percent worldwide, or 158 out of 198 countries—do not have a national higher education internationalization strategy, including the United States. Only 11 percent—22 out of 198 countries—have an official strategy in this area, and 9 percent—18 out of 198 countries—make some mention of internationalization as part of their overall higher education strategy, according to Craciun. 

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Almost all existing strategies have been published in the last decade, and a majority of them only in the last 5 years, making this kind of strategic thinking at a national government level a relatively new phenomenon.

It is also largely a European phenomenon. Of the 22 countries with an internationalization strategy, 14 are in Europe and five are in Asia.

Components of Internationalization Plans

The elements included in an internationalization plan vary widely from country to country to meet diverse goals. Plans are typically broken down into components related to either international students, domestic students, or both. Regarding domestic students, most plans include goals around increasing student experiences abroad. 

Regarding international students, the components may address:

  • Overall student recruitment targets;
  • Enrollment targets for students from specific regions or countries;
  • Enrollment targets for students studying in certain fields, like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM);
  • Goals around international student contributions to the national economy; or
  • Standards for international student experiences, such as expectations for higher education resources and support that must be offered to them.

To achieve these goals, many plans stipulate that scholarships and financial support be provided for international students to come and for domestic students to study abroad, as well as for internationalizing the curricula at institutions. Marketing efforts to brand the nation’s higher education offerings and differentiate it from competitors are also typically included. Many strategies have policies and provisions for visa and immigration issues, including expedited processing of student visas and making postgraduation visas and immigration tracks available.

Behind the plans are a variety of more basic internationalization goals, including: 

  • Preparing students to be global citizens;
  • Driving revenue to a country’s higher education sector;
  • Generating overall economic impact;
  • Feeding immigration tracks, often for countries seeking population growth or targeted workforce development in certain skills or areas of expertise (like STEM);
  • Building a country’s higher education prestige; and
  • Increasing soft power diplomacy.

Overall, the most common goals of national strategies are building the national reputation and competitiveness of the country and its higher education system, as well as deriving economic benefits from internationalization, says Craciun. A common impetus for many foreign policies appears to have been a desire to compete more effectively with the United States, which remains the dominant receiving market. 

The higher education leaders interviewed generally believe that there is no particular country’s strategy that should be imported, and that it is important for the strategy that any country adopts to focus on its particular challenges and higher education structure. Examples from a handful of countries with national strategies—the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand—explore the many forms these plans can take.

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United Kingdom: Adjusting as Needed

In March 2019, the UK government announced a new international plan to increase the number of international students studying in the United Kingdom by more than 30 percent and boost the income generated by education exports to £35 billion.

The announcement came 6 years after the United Kingdom’s first strategy, in 2013, which set several ambitious goals, including generating £30 billion per year from education exports and transnational activity by 2020. That original plan proves that there are limits to the benefits of national strategies, says Hillman, who facilitated the development of the strategy while serving as chief of staff and other posts for Rt. Hon David Willetts MP, the Minister for Universities and Science.

“The existence of a document is not sufficient to drive change,” Hillman says. “Our 2013 plan said all the right things, but our Home Office [which controls international student migration] was not committed to it because a large part of the Home Office sought to keep them out as security risks.”

The new plan takes into consideration elements that kept the 2013 plan from succeeding.

“We just had a new announcement regarding the working rights of students to stay in the United Kingdom and work there,” he says. “I think part of the reason it is changing is because we will fail to hit our targets unless we have that policy. We are nearly [in 2020] and the predicted number is £23 billion—we are a long way off.”  

skyline of Toronto, Canada
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Canada: Evolving Internationalization Strategies

Some internationalization plans with recruitment components have succeeded beyond the initial goal of attracting more international students and have been updated to focus on seeking certain types of international students and pursuing other goals.  

In 2014, Canada released its International Education Strategy with a national recruitment target of hosting 450,000 international students by 2022. According to an analysis by ICEF Monitor, Canada surpassed that target in 2017 when it enrolled 494,525 students—a 20 percent increase over the previous year. The next year, Canada saw a 16.3 percent increase. 

In August 2019, Canada released a new international plan that changed objectives from focusing on gross recruitment metrics to increasing international student diversity and promoting international exposure for domestic students.

“I agree with the new plan’s focus on attracting more diverse international students and more focus on outbound mobility,” says Katie Orr, director of NSCC International at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. “A much larger percentage of American students go abroad than Canadians. While we are reaping the benefits of international students coming to us, those students are taking their skills back to the sending countries as global ambassadors. Our own students aren’t getting the same opportunities.”   

Orr says that while the 2014 strategy—which largely centered on successfully branding Canada as a destination market—helped attract more international students, the more critical factor in increasing enrollment was Canada’s favorable post-study work policies and clarity regarding a path to permanent residency.

“Once students complete their credential, they can apply for a postgraduate work permit and can apply for permanent residency,” Orr says. “So, immigration is the driver of our success with international students. Canada needs immigrants and has been very open to them over the past decade.” 

Orr also says that the Canadian community college model helps drives international student enrollment because it is employment-oriented. Government funding to community colleges is based on metrics tied to the employment success of graduates, rather than the completion of degrees. 

“Our main goal is for our students to be employable or to start their own businesses,” Orr says. 

Inside a building in Berlin with the German flag visible outside
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Germany: Surpassing Ambitious Goals

Germany is another country with a national plan and a higher education system that bears resemblance to that of the United States. As in the United States and Canada, in Germany, the federal government does not hold the locus of responsibility of higher education—instead, its states do. But there is a key difference between the U.S. and German models.  

“In the United States, you are dealing with a widely commercialized sector, whereas in Germany, higher education is looked at as a public good, for both domestic and international students,” says Michael Harms, director of communications for the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which awards competitive, merit-based grants for use toward study and research at German institutions. 

“That makes a huge difference in the ability of universities to attract international students, as we have 16 states and most of their higher education institutions do not charge tuition fees,” Harms says. “The vast majority of degree programs are paid for by the public sector and are free for the students.” 

In 2008, the German Ministry of Education issued its first internationalization strategy, which was amended in 2017. The strategy emphasizes a variety of goals: strengthening excellence and cooperation, strengthening the country’s role on the international higher education stage, overcoming global challenges, and working with emerging countries. 

DAAD released its own internationalization plan to support the national strategy by awarding scholarships to 145,000 students and young researchers in 2018. Like Canada, Germany has achieved its international student recruitment goals ahead of schedule. 

“In our own Strategy 2020, the objective was 350,000 students by 2020,” Harms says. “In fact, we reached that goal 3 years early, in 2017.” 

As with Canada, demographics, in part, are driving the push for more international students, and Germany has created provisions that allow international students to stay for 18 months and pursue citizenship. 

“Looking at the demography in future years, it will be necessary to also attract talent from other countries,” Harms says. “We would like some of them to stay on.”

However, Harms says that the plan is largely just a framework, with much of the meat devoted to individual institutions establishing their own internationalization strategies.

DAAD is about to release a new strategy for the next 5 years, which will emphasize making German universities even more international through scholarships for international talent and funding programs for institutional cooperation across borders. DAAD will also increase its efforts to provide expert knowledge for international collaboration.

National strategic plans are helpful “to create a mindset and a structure for internationalization,” Harms says. “We are lucky to have a government which is not only interested in internationalization but also actively supports it.”

SKyline of Auckland, New Zealand
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New Zealand: Balancing Benefits

New Zealand is another anglophone country that has had an aggressive international recruitment policy. In 2011, the country released an international recruitment plan that set a variety of objectives over a 15-year term.

Components of the plan included doubling the annual economic value of international education to $5 billion (NZD); increasing the number of international students enrolled in providers offshore from 3,000 to 10,000; and doubling the number of international postgraduate students from 10,000 to 20,000. 

To support the plan, the government created an international student recruitment organization called Education New Zealand and launched a “Think New” education brand used in global marketing campaigns.

In 2018, the country released a new 12-year internationalization strategy, refocusing its goals to deliver excellent education and student experiences, achieve sustainable growth, and develop students as global citizens.

“When I arrived here and looked at the 2011 plan, I was impressed by two things,” says Brett Berquist, director international at the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand. “First, they were very clear on the metrics and where they wanted to go, which was a focus on international revenues. Second—the flip side—was that it was very single-minded. While clear and motivational, what was missing was a focus on the holistic benefits of international education.”

The current plan addresses this shortcoming, says Berquist, and “balances the economic benefits and broader learning benefits with a focus on global citizenship for all students and on the well-being of international students who study here. There is also a focus on sustainable growth in diversifying where international students are studying.”

Berquist notes that as an island nation at the far edge of the South Pacific, New Zealanders understand the importance of internationalization. 

“In the last census of Auckland, 40 percent of residents were born somewhere else,” Berquist says. “We eat and breathe internationalization. We have some of the highest mobility rates in the world. What has changed is that now students want to start their big overseas experience during their studies,” and the national strategy has taken that shift into consideration.

Another advantage for New Zealand: the small size of the nation’s higher education sector. Berquist says this facilitates close and sustained collaboration among institutions and other stakeholders in a way that is not possible in a country the size of the United States.

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The Importance of Context 

Many higher education experts, including Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, say that countries like Canada and Germany have created successful international recruitment strategies in systems that give primary responsibility for higher education to its provinces and states (rather than the central government). Such success has motivated other countries to act.

Increasing numbers of low- and middle-income countries—for instance, Colombia and Malaysia—are adopting internationalization strategies, says de Wit, citing a recent study for the World Bank. But one country’s approach may not meet the needs of another.

de Wit, the lead editor of the study, observes that although there is more activity, there is also reason for caution. 

“In copying a traditional, high-income paradigm, in focusing on mobility of students and staff, on reputation and branding, and on south-north relations, countries may lose sight of what is specific and appropriate for their own contexts,” he says.  •


Countries with National Strategies for International Education

Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Source: Craciun dissertation


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