Building institutional capacity through inclusion, or the other way around? Implications of opening higher education to displaced students in Italy

In front of contemporary geopolitical challenges, European higher education institutions (HEISs) are increasingly called to take action for the global common goods (Marginson, 2018) and to align internationalization and third mission agendas (Jones et al., 2022). One significant step in this direction has been the inclusion of refugee and refugee-like students through the establishment of various University Provisions for Displaced Students (UPDSs). However, while recent research starts examining the impact of UPDSs on students’ educational careers (Bacher et al., 2020; Lambrechts, 2020), less is known about the extent to which – and how – the inclusion of this vulnerable category redefines HEIs mission, pedagogical strategies, and internal organization. To fill this gap, the paper explores how UPDSs transform HEIs institutional capacity and redesign their relationships with external actors at multiple scales (local, national, and international). The focus is on Italy, an understudied context where internationalization goals struggle with restrictive migration policies. Thus, it can provide interesting comparative insights with more extensively researched European countries. Drawing from a purposive sample of nine Italian universities, the paper triangulates documentary research and interview data to provide a first analytical typology of the different UPDSs implemented since 2015. The preliminary analysis shows that UPDSs significantly increase Italian HEIs engagement with government bodies, private sector, and NGOs at different scales. However, UPDSs management is frequently deputized to few, goodwilled employees as additional workload, and is marked by heavy bureaucratic constraints. This results in a general lack of transferability of institutional capacity not only between but also within universities, limiting these practices of inclusion to consolidate. The implications of this study suggest that for displaced students in Italy, access and inclusion into HEIs remain highly staggered and dependent on how UPDSs categorize and understand student displacement. For higher education policymaking, this study highlights the need to rethink the balance between accountability, equitable access and long-term sustainability of these programs.