Optimising social and academic integration in the post-pandemic Higher Education landscape

Posted by Mat Kirby

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the Higher Education sector over the last few months. Institutions and networks continue to react swiftly to an ever-changing situation, and as the case with many other sectors, have been developing new ways of working with strained resources.

But for all institutions, the vital aim of improving social and academic integration is more important than ever. Recent data from UCAS shows a 9 per cent increase in international students in UK universities starting courses in September 2020.

But as budgets and resources are tightened in a post-pandemic landscape, taking an evidence-based approach to counter the uncertainties of the coming months will be key to making the most of social and academic integration.

Here we explore why now is the time to refresh and rethink your institution’s approach to social and academic integration. We cover why it’s important to post-pandemic sustainability, the possible pitfalls of current approaches, and how to refine your strategy to be as efficient as possible.


The importance of social and academic integration 

Social and academic integration will be a fundamental goal for all Higher Education institutions and networks. There is value in a diverse campus and academic programme which prepares graduates to live and work across the world. Integration should be an important part of any internationalisation at home strategy. To become global graduates, students need a culturally diverse academic and social experiences.

Social and academic integration not only helps to create a diverse environment of shared cultural understanding but also plays a large role in student retention and success in higher education programmes. According to the most commonly referred to model in student retention (Tinto, 1975), whether a student persists or drops out is predicted by their level of academic and social integration. As such, it’s critical to have a clear understanding of the student experience and the factors that play a part in positive integration, such as personal development, academic performance and personal relationship building. Ultimately, integration improves student satisfaction and ensures diversity is not merely a statistic, but a reality on campus. As a result of the pandemic, a renewed focus should be on social and academic integration with online programmes in mind too.

Both areas also have a key effect on student performance, creating a nurturing environment to encourage professional and personal development. This academic and personal development is synonymous with a high-quality student experience.

Benefits in a post-pandemic landscape

Even within a climate of uncertainty, improving social and academic integration has clear benefits. It’s a direct way of improving the student experience, and will bring clear results if done efficiently.

Social and academic integration is an important part of any internationalisation model. In a post-pandemic world, the value provided by internationalisation will play a key role in ensuring institutions remain attractive to students. This in turn will help achieve long-term sustainability for the institution.

The core benefits of improving social and academic integration include:

  • Creating a framework for true global graduates.
  • Students making lasting relationships outside of their normal social ‘bubble’.
  • Strengthening engagement between staff and students.
  • Improving student satisfaction.
  • Ensuring a thriving, multicultural campus with a heightened sense of community.
  • Re-aligning programmes to develop effective global skills.


The risk of making decisions in the dark 

Though the benefits are clear, institutions often find it difficult to make informed decisions to improve levels of integration. Most institutions will feature social and academic integration as a core component of a wider internationalisation strategy. But many struggle to clearly understand or benchmark the current level of integration across the institution.

Without reliable baseline measurements, it’s difficult to measure the success of any action or strategy. Institutions may not be sure where to prioritise resources and energy. As a result, resources can be misplaced, and progress can be stunted. Taking an evidence-based approach will mean that institutions can troubleshoot any efforts to improve integration, in particular taking into account the current climate and post-pandemic challenges with ‘real-time’ data.
Even before the pandemic, this meant internationalisation strategies could be slow to progress or even falter completely. A lack of reliable evidence to aid decision-making can lead to strategies having little or no effect. Poor evidence can lead to poor decisions, wastage of resources, and faltering projects.

These risks are compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many sectors, Higher Education has gone through significant turmoil over the last few months. Resources are tighter so any changes need to bring tangible value. There has been a huge change to how courses are taught, with a push towards online delivery. This approach brings new difficulties for both staff and students. Reliable data is needed to measure these changes and inform decisions. Now is the time to take an evidence-based approach to integration, to make sure resources have the most effect.


Developing an evidence-based approach

Institutions will need to rebuild and evolve in the post-pandemic landscape to remain sustainable. Taking an evidence-based approach to strategic decisions will make sure any changes are beneficial, effective, and focused. Institutions can use new tools to measure and analyse social and academic integration as part of a renewed approach to internationalisation.

The Global Education Profiler (GEP) tool was developed by the University of Warwick and helps institutions take an evidence-based approach to internationalisation. The tool collects survey data from students and staff around all areas of internationalisation. It captures insights to help systematically improve the student experience and staff engagement. Institutions can set benchmarks and compare with their network or the wider sector, and visualise the data within reports.

Social and academic integration are two of five aspects measured by the student section of the GEP. It provides important insight into community cohesion and the effectiveness of academic support. Institutions gain clear benchmarks for both social and academic integration, helping achieve continuous improvements to student experience.

In the post-pandemic world, online and physical learning environments must evolve. By setting clear benchmarks at this stage, institutions can counter the uncertainties of the coming months. The GEP will help ensure changes have long term benefits to internationalisation and the experience of both staff and students.

Want to learn more about optimising social and academic integration? Join University of Warwick’s Helen Spencer-Oatey, and Durham University's Danny Donoghue, on our latest Internationalisation webinar: Optimising social and academic integration.




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