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Sustainable International Education Partnerships

By Helen Sophia Chua Balderama posted 04-29-2018 04:43 PM


Cambridge Dictionary defines sustainable as able to continue over a period of time, while Merriam Webster simply puts it as capable of being sustained. The term sustainable would seem at odds with the often-used description of international education (IE) as a dynamic field and how it requires practitioners to be flexible and capable of handling fast-paced environments. I would argue, however, that precisely this constantly changing environment requires looking at sustainable partnerships, in order to counter the uncertainties faced and achieve focus in the way we manage partnership discussions and planning. So how do we consider ‘sustainable’ within the context of IE partnerships?


From Strategic to Sustainable Partnerships

A university’s international strategy must be anchored in its vision, goals and values as an institution, without which it risks losing meaning and impact to its stakeholders. In his IIE blog, Robin Helms (July 2016) identified scope, depth, and duration as primary elements of “strategicness”. And rightly so: these three elements must be discussed and elaborated if the strategy is to help achieve institutional goals. Furthermore, strategic partnerships involve not only one activity nor one unit but multiple activities (i.e. joint research, teaching, faculty and student mobility, recruitment, etc), and are championed by several units or Faculties. Consequently, these types of partnerships demand more commitment in terms of resources of all kinds - time, human resources, systems and actual monies. 

What is interesting is that, in these times of socio-political and economic uncertainties, the same considerations can be used as litmus tests of which activities and partnerships must be prioritized. To put it simply - now that I have 20K instead of 50K, where and how would I spend it? 

Some considerations and questions arise for international education leaders and practitioners:

  • Where would my university’s time, efforts and resources have more impact?
  • Would this seed funding help launch an impactful project that will also be beneficial to our long-term bilateral partnership?
  • This is a risky initiative: am I willing to go for it with my partner institution based on mutual trust, respect and shared values?

I am sure the stakes are higher than 20K or 50K, but you get the point.

Pretty Outlook in Canada but Sustainable Partnership is Still Key

Canada has achieved one of its international education strategy goals – to increase international student enrollment to 450,000 by 2022 - to the tune of 495,000 students five years early by 2016-17. A similar upward trend is happening at my institution, York University, where we saw 9% increase in the number of international students from 2015-16 to 2016-17. Based on current statistics, International students (visa and non-visa) now represent almost 23% of the undergraduate student population compared. This growth constantly challenges and inspires us to improve international student supports and programs. 

At the same time, it pushes us to address the other side of the equation – increasing opportunities and supports for our Canadian students to take advantage of opportunities abroad. Our hope is to contribute to reciprocal exchanges and promote global citizenship among our students and enhance intercultural understanding with our university partners around the world. These efforts are embedded in the aspirations of York University.


Per the University Academic Plan (UAP) 2015-2020, York University’s overarching pillars are academic and research excellence, student success and community engagement while newly installed President Dr. Rhonda Lenton laid out 4 priority pillars of York University for the next 5 years - access, connectedness, excellence and impact. These goals, in addition to the mission and vision of the university (UAP page 4), are considered when we review and assess partnership proposals. Instead of looking at university rankings or size alone, I would look at the expressed institutional vision and objectives of a potential partner. Are they as diverse as our student population? How do they support them? Are they working on global health in Africa? Do they have environmental and community-based research in South America? Asking these questions may require additional resources and steps in the review process, but it provides a solid ground of common values and interests, that I believe, are better parameters for meaningful and sustainable partnerships.

Helen Balderama is Associate Director, International Partnerships and Programs at York University, Toronto, Canada and NAFSA’s International Outreach Coordinator. Helen holds an MA in Public Administration from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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