Help students make the most of studying overseas at branch campuses and beyond

Chris Pirie offers advice on how to run a smooth international student exchange programme

Chris Pirie's avatar
Heriot-Watt University
8 Sep 2023
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While still at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Jairis Alvarez Trujillo helped to design a solar-powered house and set out how it could be transported sustainably to Dubai as part of the 2020 Solar Decathlon Middle East competition.

A learning experience like this can really set university students apart once they start to compete with others to clinch a sought-after internship or early career opportunity anywhere in the world.

So how can the UK’s higher education sector open up more opportunities for students to learn and develop new skills overseas?

Worldwide higher education

It’s not unusual for UK-based universities to also have campuses located in different regions across the world. However, each international campus typically welcomes its own cohort of students who tend to remain in one location for the duration of their course.

At Heriot-Watt, where I work, all students, just like Jairis, can choose to transfer between our three campuses in the UK, one in Dubai and one in Malaysia if their courses are taught there.

Every academic year, our Go Global programme sees hundreds of students experience the best of both worlds by taking up the opportunity to come to the UK from our campuses in Dubai and Malaysia, or vice versa, for a semester, a year or even longer. The opportunities enrich the higher education experience for all students in so many ways.

By immersing students in new cultures overseas, they not only expand their networks and make lifelong friends but also gain valuable life skills, including independence and resilience. This exposure enhances their understanding of international issues and equips them for early career success in an increasingly competitive job market.

But before diving in, institutions wishing to explore the possibility of running similar programmes should carefully consider a few key factors to ensure students make the most of this potentially transformative experience and prepare for a journey that maximises learning, growth and unforgettable memories.

Smooth the way

Students might not instantly settle into university life in a different country, particularly if everything on their new campus is completely different from what they’ve experienced before. A little familiarity can help to smooth the transition.

One way to provide this is to deliver the same course content in common subjects across all campuses. This means students can arrive in their destination countries and continue their studies without worrying about being at different stages from their peers or having to catch up once they get back.

At Heriot-Watt, we try to ensure students’ learning experiences are as close as they can be to identical no matter where in the world a student is studying. Enabling our teaching staff to transfer between campuses also helps ensure teaching in all subject areas is of a similar standard, too.

It’s equally essential to provide support for a student through each stage of their move. Sending regular reminders about application deadlines, for example, and running cultural awareness sessions can help ensure students know exactly what to expect when they arrive in a new destination. Cohorts of students heading to the same campus at the same time should be given plenty of opportunities to get to know each other before they leave, too, which will help make them feel part of their global learning community.

Of course, it’s not always possible for students to transfer their studies abroad. With this in mind, we have developed cross-campus projects to allow those who can’t physically move to still gain that invaluable international experience. A recent project involved students taking beach samples in Dubai, Malaysia and Scotland.

Minimise the impact on staff workloads

Go Global is no small undertaking, so it’s crucial to reduce the administrative impact on staff workloads as much as possible. One of the most effective ways to do this is to standardise workflows and processes across the institution.

For example, we have a single information management system from Ellucian, which is used across all our campuses. This means student movements are consistently tracked and data on courses and student progress can be updated easily, so there’s no need for it to be requested or shared manually between our UK and overseas campuses. Staff can simply update and view the data they are authorised to see, whether they are based in the UK or internationally.

Staff get automatic alerts and reminders to help them manage each stage of a transfer, too, which can save hours of time and reduces the risk of anything being missed. We make sure students studying internationally sit the same assessments and exams at the same time within their subject areas, too, which makes the whole process of managing assessments and monitoring progress much simpler.

Broadening horizons

As a sector, the UK’s higher education institutions have a significant role to play in broadening students’ horizons, helping them compete in the global workplace and shaping our future leaders. Giving students the opportunity to gain worldwide perspectives, learn new languages and experience different cultures as part of their university experiences enhances their academic and personal growth and better equips them to navigate our increasingly interconnected world.

Chris Pirie is a student systems manager at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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