Success factors and barriers in international education change in higher education: case Global VET course

Authors: Meril Ümarik¹ Meidi Sirk¹, Eila Burns² and Piia Kolho² |


This paper focuses on exploring the transformative educational changes at a university exploiting the implementation of an international course of Global VET as a case example. The aim is to understand what the success factors and barriers in international educational change process are and how such changes could be supported. The case study approach has been selected as a research frame and different data sources (such as a university’s development plans, students’ feedback and interview data) have been used in data analysis. The case example enables to outline positive aspects (transfer of new perspectives and practices and ideas for collaborative initiatives), but also institutional barriers such as different institutional rules, different forms of learning and teaching as well as learning platforms used. Moreover, the lack of support systems and finances reserved for the implementation might threaten the sustainability of the internationalization practices (e.g. development of international courses or curricula). We argue that a more systematic approach should be taken at the university when introducing top-down educational changes. This needs to include a clear way of communication about the aims of changes, sufficient support during the implementation process as well as possibilities to share good practices and develop learning communities.


Universities worldwide have undergone multiple reforms and changes during the recent decades. Under the neoliberal change ideology, higher education institutions are increasingly under economic rationality, responsible for making profit and following accountability rules. Moreover, matching needs of the society for teaching and learning and internationalization are among the priorities in university strategies. Academic staff members at universities are faced with many parallel changes and innovations in their everyday work. Previous studies have revealed that many educational changes often fail during the implementation or do not support long term effects. Despite the change efforts the innovations often remain as solitary practices of some university teachers or programs and do not involve widespread adoption (Cox, McIntosh, Reason, & Terezini, 2011) or university level transformative change (Holley, 2009). Transformative changes are pervasive and influence institutional culture and make impact on the members of the organization in respect how they view themselves (Holley, 2009).

This paper explores transformative educational changes at Tallinn University in Estonia by taking the case of implementing the international course of Global Vocational Education and Training (Global VET) as an example. When analysing the implementation of the Global VET course the following research questions have been posed: What have been the success factors and barriers in the implementation? How could the internationalization educational change process be supported?

Implementation of educational changes

Reforms, educational changes and innovations are constantly introduced. Not all changes implemented are adopted by all stakeholders, are sustainable or transformative (Holley, 2009). The model of three pillars of institutional order introduced by Richard Scott (2008) argues that all changes encompass three levels: regulatory, normative and cultural cognitive. In order a change to be institutionalized it must be supported not only by rules and regulations, but also shared norms and values and belief systems. Therefore, in order to university level changes to be sustainable certain efforts need to be taken to create shared norms and common culture.

It is understandable that changes are not automatically adopted by all. Adoption of changes asks for sense-making of changes (Spillane et al., 2002) and construction of common meanings of change that is affected by prevailing norms and institutional culture (Ashwin, 2006). Resistance of changes might be caused by poor communication of the aims, lack of involvement of stakeholders in the planning phase or lack of confidence or abilities to implement the change (Hockley, 2014).  According to Spillane et al. (2002) the interaction of three aspects decides how stakeholders understand and adopt changes: (1) the individuals´ prior knowledge and understandings; (2) the norms and interactions prevailing in the social context (e.g. at the university or university department), and (3) communication of change and the support system (e.g. resources, trainings, networks) (Spillane et al., 2002,388).

Similar aspects are emphasized by Hockley (2014) in his model. In the planning phase the shared vision should be created, and the positive impact of the change should be communicated among a wide range of stakeholders. During the implementation phase the access to the resources – coaching and training, time resources – become decisive as well as ongoing communication of the positive outcomes of the change. Finally, in the reinforcement phase, the support to tackle with prospective problems arising and reward for success and achievement should be provided. (Hockley, 2014) Therefore, involvement, support, resources and communication should be seen as important factors in the change implementation process.

Methodological approach: case study

The case study approach (Yin, 2008) has been applied and different data sources (e.g. university development plans, student feedback and interview data) has been used and triangulated when analysing the case. In the study the conceptual frames from the new-institutional approach, more specifically Richard Scott´s (2008) concept on three pillars of institutional order has been combined with change implementation literature.

First, the university and department level development plans have been reviewed aiming to reveal how internationalization has been presented in the formal regulations. Secondly, a reflective group interview has been conducted with university teachers who taught the course and the heads of the Bachelor and Master curricula in vocational pedagogics. Moreover, students´ (n=18) feedback of the course has been gathered. The development plans, interview data and students´ feedback have been analysed by using the hybrid approach of thematic analysis, starting with text-driven inductive analysis and in the later phases the conceptual frames have guided our focus and provided a basis for interpreting the data. Arguments from the analysis of different data sets have been triangulated aimed to provide an in-depth understanding of the case.


Global VET course as part of the internationalization strategy at the university

In 2015 Tallinn University created five strategic research-based focused fields: educational innovation, digital and media culture, cultural competences, healthy and sustainable lifestyle, society and open governance. The principles and goals of the activities of all these five fields had to focus on the interdisciplinarity, internationalisation, demands of excellence and sustainability in teaching, research, development and creation (Development plan of Tallinn University 2015-2020).

Moreover, since 2015 the internationalization has been highly visible at Tallinn University and stated as a priority in the development plans of the university (Development plan of Tallinn University 2015-2020; Development plan of Tallinn University 2020-2022) and that of the School of Educational Sciences (Development plan of School of Educational Sciences of Tallinn University 2016-2020). Along with the internationalization aims, increasing mobility of students and teaching staff, and increased number of courses provided in English have been stated in the plan. The number of joint/international curricula, courses in English and long-term mobility of teaching staff were introduced as indicators for funding the department. Consequently, internationalization has become a central priority. “In collaboration with our partners at least three joint modules and joint curricula will be developed” was stated as a target in the Development Plan of the School of Educational Sciences. The aim was also “to develop in collaboration with partner universities a joint curricula” in order to provide students a possibility to take some modules abroad and increase mobility.

It was decided by the management of the School that in all Bachelor and Master level curricula at least one international course will be prepared jointly with international partners. “I remember that this topic was raised in all meetings and discussed at what state we were with preparing joint courses and sending students to take practical training in other countries” as one of the lecturers remembers. A strong top-down pressure was experienced especially by the heads of the curriculum responsible for developing international courses/ courses in English.

Head of the MA curriculum: I remember that moment when we had the meeting at our institute and the head of the institute told us that every curriculum needs to have a course in English in their curriculum, and if not, the curriculum will be shut down…Yes, it sounded as a treat…”

However, as it had not been defined in the university regulations what the international course means, different practices were created at the university. Some courses were created jointly with international partners, in other cases international teaching staff members as well as mobility of students were incorporated, but there was also implementation of courses that were taught entirely by local teaching staff.

The curriculum of vocational pedagogy had the design of the Global VET course as a part of the bachelor level curriculum, but it had not yet been delivered. Therefore, it seemed most rational to re-design it for an international course. At the same time, a contact from JAMK University of Applied Sciences, School of Professional Teacher Education was received to discover possibilities for joint initiatives. Thus, the idea of developing a joint course was welcomed by the Finnish partners.

Finnish lecturer: “We were glad to get a possibility to create a new course of Global VET in English with Estonian colleagues. We can offer it to our students as well.”

The content of the course was jointly created during the first year of the collaboration and it was piloted in the following with the Estonian students. The course consisted of four topical areas and the Finnish colleagues were responsible for one of these. Moreover, at the end of the course a conference was planned to take place where students could present their thesis in English. The course targeted to Finnish students was planned to take place in the following year, but it was clear from the very beginning that the course structure needed to be different for the Finnish higher education students than for the Estonians. This was due to the different structure and organisation of teaching in the Finnish institution where mainly e-learning and blended learning forms were used. Therefore, the Global VET course was designed as an online training course for students at the Finnish university.  By now, the course has been taught twice for Estonian and Finnish students and some lessons can be learned from the implementation process. In this paper more specific focus has been put on the experiences of Estonian students´ and teachers´.

Story of successes and challenges

Both students and teachers from Estonia and Finland valued the developed course and in particular, the international dimensions and future perspectives of VET teachers’ work that were embedded in it. The Estonian students mentioned feeling anxious and nervous because of a possible language barrier as the sessions would be given by the international lecturers.  However, these feelings disappeared soon at the beginning of the lessons as some of the students described: “they were so high-level foreign lecturers, that the fears for studying in English disappeared” (Student 2). “We had interesting discussions and inspiring lecturers” (Student 7), “communication in English supported my professional development” (Student 1). Also, the students mentioned that “It was interesting to know about the teaching styles of different institutions” (Student 4).  The students highly valued the face-to-face meetings with international teacher educators, and it was suggested that in the future some study trips to Finland should be included in the course.

Similarly, Estonian lecturers teaching at the course or being involved in the planning phase considered the course as inspiring in many ways. First it provided opportunities to learn from the Finnish colleagues and their pedagogical practices. Secondly, it contributed to develop other future collaborative activities (e.g. seminars, prospective future joint research and development projects etc.). However, also some challenges were experienced. It was argued that the present model of implementation is not the ideal for both partners.

Head of the BA curriculum: As an ideal situation I thought that there would be our students and their students in the course and we would teach their students about Estonian VET system and concerns and we would have a discussion […] It is a pity that they had not have a chance to take part in the final seminar so that students would need to present in English…”

Estonian teaching staff were not involved in face-to-face teaching at the Finnish university because the course was fully offered online to meet the needs of their students who are all over Finland and abroad. Although some video materials were prepared by Estonian partners for the course offered in Finland, the partners generally experienced that their contribution was minimal.

The biggest challenge has been the lack of institutional support (including financial support) and the question of sustainability to keep this international course alive. Although internationalization has been stated as a priority at the university, there is no support system nor any finances available for foreign lecturers involved in teaching.

Lecturer: “At the moment they contribute a lot as the course consists of four main topics and study sessions and Finnish lecturers cover one of these… And they do not get any pay for that. We have talked about it with our management, but to lecture on international courses is an unpaid job… Therefore, there is the question of sustainability raising…”

So far the cooperation has depended upon the Finnish colleagues´ good will and support from the management of the Finnish partner institution. However, lectures from both universities feel that face-to-face meetings are time and resource consuming, therefore, the technology enhanced solutions might be used in future courses. Moreover, to apply for an Erasmus+ project has been considered as a way to finance the mobility of both the lecturers and the students, even the project-based financing is not a sustainable solution. Other examples within the university have shown that after the project ends the international courses tend to lose their essence and the content of the courses that has been developed internationally, will be taught only by local lecturers. We can argue that more systematic strategies and support is needed (to implement internationalization and joint courses, modules and curricula).

Discussion: lessons learned from the case

The introduction of the Global VET course has been considered as a positive experience for both students and teaching staff at an Estonian university. It has provided opportunities for communicating educational topics in English and experiencing different perspectives and approaches in teaching and learning. In addition, it introduced new ideas for further collaboration. However, the case brought out some challenges and barriers that exist at the higher education organisations. Some of these are most evident such as different institutional structures and rules, nonidentical learning and teaching cultures and incompatible online teaching and learning platforms. Therefore, the jointly designed Global VET course was implemented differently in Estonian and Finnish institutions. Thus, we feel that the full potential of the international course (e.g. co-operation between students) has not been met. However, the biggest challenge has been issues related to sustainability due to lack of financial support and systematic approach in implementing internationalization strategy at higher education organisations.

We can argue that in this case internationalization as a top-down educational change activity has been introduced without widespread communication of good practices and development of the support system that has been generally regarded as essential for the successful change implementation (Hockley, 2014). At the university level many kinds of internationalization practices with dubious quality exist often caused by the lack of widespread communication and sense-making practices. Sense-making is generally seen as essential for any change adoption (Spillane et al., 2002), as well as communication of existing good practices in the reinforcement phase (Hockley, 2014).

By referring to Scott´s model (Scott, 2008) we can suggest that internationalization has been introduced at the university on the regulatory level but has not become the norm of academic life among the teaching staff. Furthermore, the internationalization and international mobility has also been one of the evaluation criteria of the academic staff. Without any additional institutional support, the workload of the academic staff is expected to increase due to the unpaid mobility or need to prepare project application to fund operation of courses or enhance mobility of students. In addition to financial support and systematic planning of the workload, the communities of practice of university teachers should be initiated as part of the change implementation process that facilitates sense-making of changes, transfer of good practices and serves as a strategy for institutional improvement (Levine, 2011).


Meril Ümarik¹ Meidi Sirk¹, Eila Burns² and Piia Kolho²

¹ Tallinn University, School of Educational Sciences

² JAMK University of Applied Sciences, School of Professional Teacher Education


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