Hugo Buitrago Carvajal serves as Higher Education Specialist at the Accreditation Council for Entrepreneurial and Engaged Universities (ACEEU) in Germany. He has the overall responsibility of managing EU-funded projects such as Qual-AI-Ty Engagement, BETTER Life, and WeRin, among others, with a special emphasis on topics related to quality assurance, social engagement, and higher education entrepreneurship. Additionally, he also works on grant ideation, writing, and application, as well as in the creation of international consortiums. Hugo holds an MSc in Research and Innovation in Higher Education from the universities Danube Krems (Austria) and Tampere (Finland), in addition to master studies in Educational and Social Development from the National Pedagogical University (Colombia).
Over the past four decades, a significant push for the internationalization of higher education has taken place. Several universities have dedicated efforts to establishing services to attract students, faculty, and resources from across the globe. This trend has undoubtedly resulted in numerous benefits including increased diversity, access to new knowledge, and economic resources. However, over the last decade, a counter-movement against the globalisation of higher education has emerged. The local engagement has consolidated as a growing strategic priority, with the potential to generate multiple benefits for higher education institutions.
Internationalisation of higher education
Research on the internationalisation of higher education has yielded multifaceted perspectives that can be traced to three distinct waves. During the 80s and 90s, the main focus was devising strategies to facilitate the mobility of people and programs. The second shifted the focus to “internationalisation at home”, whereby institutions sought to internationalise their on-campus activities without necessarily promoting mobility. Recently, in the third wave, the attention turned to the local context with strategies such as “inclusive internationalisation”, “intelligent internationalisation” and “internationalisation of higher education for society”. This last wave of perspectives on internationalisation merges with existing initiatives on community and social engagement in higher education.
In the 2020 edition of the Internationalisation in Higher Education for Society (IHES) manual published by DAAD, the authors underscored the necessity of including social engagement as a means to address the imbalance generated by agendas on internationalisation. This imperative is particularly pertinent in European universities, where policies emphasise the importance of universities demonstrating social pertinence and fostering increased social cohesion. As internationalisation is recognised as an outreach strategy, it inherently encompasses social engagement, aligning with efforts to enhance the relevance and societal contributions of higher education.
The mobility of students remains pivotal for some institutions, serving as a critical driver of institutions’ financial sustainability through revenue generated from tuition and services. Beyond this economic impetus, internationalisation at home profoundly impacts the quality of curricula and learning outcomes of students. Despite the acknowledged significance of internationalisation, smaller regional institutions, which comprise the majority, may dedicate less strategic importance to it. Instead, these institutions may focus on fostering productive alliances with local organisations to enhance the quality of their educational, research, and engagement (third mission) missions.
Social Engagement in higher education
In recent years, social and community engagement has been revitalised in Europe through policies outlined by the European Commission and projects funded by the Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe programs. Community engagement has a long-standing tradition in universities in Latin America and the USA, where it is implemented through a range of activities including service learning, community-based research, and other services. In Europe, the emphasis on engagement has been amplified as policies underscore the need to engage with diverse sectors, namely businesses, and industry, the public sector, and civil society organisations and citizens. This has resulted in a shift towards using the term “social engagement” in Europe, rather than “community engagement”
An increasing number of universities are emphasising the establishment of partnerships with local businesses, nonprofit organisations, and government agencies to address pressing social and economic issues in their respective regional ecosystems. The move towards local engagement is motivated by a confluence of factors, including dynamic political and economic landscapes, evolving student expectations, and heightened awareness of the imperative for universities to act as responsible and responsive social agents.
The changing political, economic, and social landscapes have demonstrated the necessity for higher education institutions to articulate and contribute to social, cultural, and economic progress in their regions. This strategic emphasis not only generates notable benefits for the institutions, which become influential stakeholders in their ecosystems and partner with key stakeholders that help them to effectively develop their activities. It also generates benefits for their respective regions by providing key expertise to address pressing local challenges.
Further, growing concerns regarding matters such as environmental and social issues, sustainability, and employability, among other critical topics, have driven universities to take decisive action. Universities have devoted significant attention to the development of green campuses and practices. Beyond this, there has been an intense focus on active involvement in local entrepreneurial ecosystems. Additionally, strengthening collaborations between universities and industry/businesses, as well as university-nonprofit partnerships, has emerged as a salient necessity. These priorities are now embedded in the missions of many higher education institutions.
Furthermore, governments and societies are increasingly calling upon higher education institutions to contribute to the consolidation of knowledge-based economies and cohesive societies. In Europe, these expectations have been highlighted at several points in the European Strategy for Universities, published in 2022, which emphasises the importance of universities demonstrating accountability, social responsibility, and relevance to society. As a result, there is growing awareness of universities’ responsibility to address pressing social and economic issues within their surrounding ecosystems. Many institutions now recognise the potential of their resources and expertise to solve local problems, resulting in a renewed focus on social engagement. However, this focus also presents a challenge for institutions that need to realign their functions and services to address these demands.
The challenge of strategic change
The push for contemporary global challenges is posing an urgent necessity for universities to address their relations with their surrounding ecosystems. In response, many European universities have engaged in the development of comprehensive tools that facilitate framing, diagnosis, support, and incentivization of social engagement. Notable examples include the TEFCE Toolbox (Towards a European Framework for Community Engagement in Higher Education), which has formulated a framework for identifying various levels of engagement, allowing for the setting of indicators and collection of evidence to inform decision-making. Likewise, the EU SciShops initiative has helped the establishment of “science shops” —support units that mediate between academics and communities— to promote community-engaged research. These advancements are part of broader strategic initiatives to position higher education institutions toward greater local and regional engagement.
The strategic focus that some institutions, especially smaller regional universities, have set on internationalisation might be shifting towards greater local engagement due to global, policy, social, and economic demands. Such a shift puts pressure on universities to accelerate institutional change by redefining their roles and functions, creating new support units, mapping organizational capacities, defining tailored initiatives to engage external stakeholders, playing a leading role in their ecosystems, evaluating their regional impact, and developing suitable strategies for benchmarking with other national and international universities. These challenges are particularly critical for university leadership and governance, as they must define the university’s role at the local level, devise strategies to attract local stakeholders to the institution, establish sound strategic goals, and demonstrate the impacts generated across diverse levels.