Irreplaceable losses

May 31, 2012

For those of us who have long been active in developing educational and research provision beyond these shores, it is heartening to learn that David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is keen to address the barriers to greater engagement by UK universities in international ventures ("BIS considers private role in overseas growth", News, 24 May).

Developments such as international campuses (a major focus of the discussion at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) have the potential to bring genuine benefits to individual institutions and to the sector as a whole. They provide an opportunity to work with talented students and academics who might not otherwise have engaged with UK higher education; they offer distinctive mobility opportunities for staff and students; they can provide novel research opportunities; and they contribute to our academy's global reputation.

But we should be careful not to delude ourselves that this activity is an "export" in any substantive economic sense. British higher education already has an outstanding export record through the stream of international students who arrive every year to study here. But this record is seriously threatened by the coalition's damaging immigration policy, which BIS has been unable to counter. The consequences for the sector and the wider economy of a significant drop in internationally mobile students coming to study in the UK could be disastrous - both in terms of the loss of talent and the loss of income.

It would be misguided to think that the establishment of campuses overseas (however funded) could be a substitute. The experience of the University of Nottingham with its campuses in Malaysia and China has been hugely positive and the benefits of campus development have been considerable, but net income isn't one of them. Done well and done properly, an international campus will be economically viable, certainly in the medium term. But expecting such revenues to replace the losses caused should the Home Office ever get close to its target for reducing net migration is unrealistic and dangerous.

Christine Ennew, Pro vice-chancellor (internationalisation/science) and professor of marketing, University of Nottingham

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