There are many divisions that have been unleashed by the Pandora’s box of Brexit. Among these are the tensions between those who feel left behind and the establishment perceived to be responsible for their distress. Another is the apparent ideological rift between those whose allegiance is solely or primarily to the nation and those who embrace a more global perspective.
In considering how universities can aid in healing – rather than exacerbating – these divisions, it would be a mistake for us to abandon our global outlook as we reinforce our civic mission. The global/civic university is not an oxymoron, but a necessity in a post-Brexit culture where powerful relationships with the rest of the world will become increasingly important to our local communities. How the overseas campus model fits within the new geopolitical forces we face deserves careful thought.
The University of Nottingham was one of the first universities to have overseas campuses: our campus in Malaysia is now 20 years old and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China is celebrating its 15th anniversary. We have about 45,000 students from more than 150 countries studying at our campuses, with a global network of over 280,000 graduates in 195 countries. We predict that by 2020, nearly 20 per cent of our alumni will be living and working in Asia.
Recent articles in Times Higher Education have debated the relative value of overseas campuses, with some commentators suggesting that the branch campus model is now obsolete. While there are certainly many new ways of delivering transnational education, I would suggest that our mature, place-based campuses now provide us with a huge advantage in the complex international landscape in which we are currently operating.
It is important to say clearly that we have never considered making money as the primary driver for our overseas campuses. While it is essential that the campus model is financially sustainable, cash generation is not Nottingham’s raison d’être . The economic, social and cultural benefits of our campuses are more important to us, as is the soft power they provide not just to the reputation of the university around the world, but to the city, businesses and communities of Nottingham as well.
After nearly two decades, our presence in China and Malaysia has led to a longevity dividend, where opportunities arise because we are known, well-regarded and, most importantly, physically present inside the countries. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been, and will continue to be, two of the biggest drivers of global demand for higher education, and these countries are investing significantly in research and innovation and have fresh insights from which we can learn. Benefits flow back to the UK in many different forms and support the research, teaching and civic mission of our institution. For us, the future lies in leveraging opportunities from these long-standing relationships.
All three campuses provide our students and staff with a distinct University of Nottingham experience. The campuses are physically aligned by having the visible attributes of our UK base: the Trent Building, with its iconic tower – of which there are versions on the Malaysia and China campuses – faces a lake in all three main sites. Although this affinity may appear superficial, it symbolises a sense of shared identity characterised by an open and welcoming community and a genuinely global mindset.
For many staff and students in the UK, our campuses have significantly lowered barriers to global engagement. According to the last available data, more University of Nottingham students undertake placements through the European Union’s Erasmus+ mobility programme than students at any other UK institution, and our researchers are among the most involved in the UK’s Newton Fund Overseas Development Aid programmes. Nottingham is one of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Cities of Literature, and having supported the bid to secure this status, we now co-sponsor the director’s role with Nottingham Trent University to undertake such projects as bringing the joy of reading to children in deprived areas of the city.
The advantage of having a global outlook can be demonstrated in other ways. In all three countries, our research base brings experts to work in partnership with their communities to address local problems. Our researchers in Malaysia are exploring ways to reduce human and elephant conflict and are developing a plant-based vaccine to prevent dengue fever. In China, we are extending our UK “Beacons of Excellence” programme into Ningbo to develop new innovation clusters on smart manufacturing, green chemicals and healthcare – linked to the city’s local industrial strategy. In the UK, our Rights Lab influences public policy internationally while also working with local citizens to make Nottingham a slavery-free city, and we have research teams with academics from several countries working with our City Council to regenerate the Trent Basin – the second largest brownfield housing development in Europe.
Having overseas campuses is not without its challenges. Both campuses are joint ventures with in-country partners, answerable to separately constituted boards, so both governance and management can be quite complex. We are guests in both countries and therefore must abide by local laws and expectations, even while we ensure that quality and standards of education and student experience are consistent with what we would demand in the UK. In Malaysia, for example, programmes must be accredited by both the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education as well as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency. In China, our partners take charge of the welfare and security of students on campus, and we are fortunate that they do so with both rigour and sympathy. While there are members of staff in the UK who are understandably concerned about some of the political developments in our partner countries, we endeavour to create campus cultures that are open, inclusive and collegiate, and to develop graduates who will go on to be informed, thoughtful and enlightened citizens and leaders.
We continue to wrestle with issues such as competition for students between the campuses, and resentment of a quasi-colonialist approach in which the UK campus is seen as assuming a patronising parental role. As we develop a new university strategy from 2020 onwards, we are adopting the principle of “one university with campuses in three countries” and testing what that means against all that we do. This offers us a means of ensuring that we are consistent in where we need to be, learning from each other and embracing diversity of approach where it makes sense to do so.
The world now faces the competing trends of resurgent nationalism and embedded globalisation. The UK is tackling an enormous challenge in Brexit. Universities are committed to the flow of ideas, knowledge and talent across borders while being rooted in their communities. At the University of Nottingham, we feel that our international campuses ensure that we are ideally placed to address this complex and ambiguous world.
Shearer West is vice-chancellor and president at the University of Nottingham.