Sorry, we have no branch campuses

Heriot-Watt University is taking a new approach to transnational education by operating as a single institution with locations in Scotland, Malaysia and Dubai, says Richard A. Williams 

September 1, 2018
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There is need for a fresh narrative around internationalisation. Heriot-Watt University being named The Times and Sunday Times International University of the Year 2018 has exemplified the fact that there are many different models of internationalisation and transnational education. 

Our model means that a third of our 29,000 students are in the UK, while a third study in Dubai and Malaysia and a third study online from 160 countries. 

I am often asked, “How are your branch campuses getting on?” But for me, our thinking strives to be far from a colonial UK base camp outlook – our mission is to be an integral part of the economic and social life of local communities wherever we touch down. 

We have no branch campuses because we increasingly operate as a single university. This has radical implications. 

For example, most collegiate meetings are held in the mornings (UK time) to accommodate the seven-hour time difference across the group. A senate meeting is a large-scale, multisite, digitally enabled conversation. Most of our staff are location-based because, in my experience, institutions relying heavily on flying faculty to overseas sites may not provide the required continuity of student experience. 

Heriot-Watt has been in Dubai for 12 years and is the largest international university in the United Arab Emirates. We’ve been in Malaysia for five years. A key to our success has been the single, fully integrated quality assurance and enhancement framework that we work within. Academic standards and learning outcomes for degree courses are identical globally.

Consequently, we do not designate the location of study on our degree certificates. As far as academic outcomes are concerned, this information is irrelevant. For many programmes, we can offer complete mobility, semester by semester, for students who wish to experience studying in different cultures at different locations.  

This has many operational consequences, not least related to accommodation logistics and contracts in different locations. But hundreds of our students are now choosing to study in this way and whether a student stays in one location or travels, we know that this rich international connectivity adds to their experience, yields higher academic performance, and builds character and confidence. It makes graduates globally employable. 

For us, human talent is developed alongside leading research and innovation capability in all locations. This is different from rather conventional methods that tend to be based on “sucking and sticking” global talent to a single UK site.

Teaching across the global university offers some astonishing educational experiences – our city design classes held in our classroom at the top of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai are synchronous with Scotland and Malaysia. With 73 per cent of our students claiming non-UK status, in our university community the area of faith and belief is a topic of natural conversation rather than a point of conflict or something to be sidelined.

The values of the university naturally engage with faith communities and indeed those of no faith. Our most popular annual public lecture is one that seeks to explore the connectivity between faith, education, science and engineering. We are pleased to explore and celebrate these issues and build global education fit for the future.

While dealing with the local UK issues of Brexit, there has never been such an important time to take our nations to the world. We proudly share Scotland with the world and bring Malaysia and Dubai to Scotland. This is a model for authentic collaborative development. Let’s start thinking differently. 

Richard A. Williams is principal and vice-chancellor at Heriot-Watt University based in Scotland, Dubai and Malaysia. 

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Print headline: We have no branch campuses, but we have students around the world

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