Build body to win hearts and minds

'Money hungry' UK universities need help losing greedy reputation overseas. Simon Baker writes

July 15, 2010

An organisation dedicated to internationalisation in the UK academy should be set up to help universities form worthwhile partnerships abroad, a leading expert in the field has suggested.

Sir Drummond Bone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said progress had been "terribly slow" since he published a key government-commissioned report on the issue two years ago.

At the time of the report, Sir Drummond warned that the long-term global reputation of the sector was at risk from concerns that UK universities' international activities were "just about making money".

Speaking earlier this month at an Inside Government conference on higher education, held in London, Sir Drummond said British universities were still seen as "money hungry" abroad.

He urged institutions not to rush into recruiting more non-European Union students in a bid to plug the funding gap, arguing instead that they should use the current crisis as an opportunity to plan long-term international strategies.

"Don't just follow the fashion. Think what is appropriate for your institution," he told the conference.

Sir Drummond said that too often, British universities viewed agreements with foreign institutions in combative terms and wanted "wins": instead, they should be prepared to give some things up.

He also repeated calls for more British students to study abroad.

In May, Martin Davidson, the British Council's chief executive, said there was still a 25:1 imbalance in the number of Britons choosing to study overseas compared with students coming to the UK.

Sir Drummond said: "UK universities are universally seen overseas as money hungry and not terribly good partners, and we have got to ... break that. One way to do that is to send our students overseas."

The former president of Universities UK, who is currently working with international private provider Laureate, said British institutions should work together to "share the risk" on foreign projects.

He also encouraged them to use the private sector.

"Don't be frightened about working with the for-profit sector if there is something to be gained. It has enormous management experience and is used to working in different countries," Sir Drummond advised.

He said there had been a positive reaction to his 2008 report, but added: "Things are moving terribly slowly and I suspect what we really need is an organisation that is dedicated to the internationalisation of UK higher education."

In the absence of such a body, Sir Drummond urged institutions to make full use of the British Council's expertise.

He also advised departments within universities to communicate properly with each other when establishing overseas links.

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