Campus close-up: Heriot-Watt University

Scotland’s ‘international university’ is investing in growth at overseas and domestic sites

April 10, 2014

Source: Douglas McBride, Heriot-Watt University

Diversity: Heriot-Watt’s School of Textiles and Design in Galashiels is part of a geographically widespread offering

There is barely a university in the UK that is not falling over itself to stress its international credentials, be it in recruiting overseas students, collaborative global research or educating students to become “global citizens”.

But Heriot-Watt University has gone further than most, billing itself as “Scotland’s International University”. And it intends to do much more.

While its Scotland campus is nestled amid fields and golf courses on the western fringes of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt also has a campus in Dubai and it is building another in the Malaysian administrative capital of Putrajaya, which is set to open fully in September.

It also has the largest international student cohort in Scotland. Thirty-six per cent of students at the Edinburgh campus come from outside the UK. Across the world, the university has almost 30,000 students, including 11,500 doing distance learning MBAs.

The scale of this international presence “is a unique selling point for us – it does differentiate us from the rest of the sector”, Steve Chapman, its vice-chancellor, told Times Higher Education.

Heriot-Watt was one of the first universities to set up in Dubai’s International Academic City in 2005, and now hosts about 3,700 students.

In 2010, the university embarked on a new international strategy, which committed to opening another outpost within five years, Professor Chapman explained.

Scouting for the best site, Professor Chapman did “lots of travelling”, including visits to China and India. But Malaysia won out, partly because Heriot-Watt was already offering degrees through a petroleum university in the country – and also because a site in Putrajaya exposes Heriot-Watt to Malaysia’s administrative elite.

The university has since had “lots and lots of publicity in Malaysia”, Professor Chapman said. As a result, it receives more applications to study in Scotland from Malaysian applicants than it does from Chinese, traditionally the biggest source country.

In the past year there have been two costly collapses of UK branch campus projects: one from the University of East London in Cyprus, the other a deal by the University of Central Lancashire in Thailand that went wrong.

Professor Chapman stressed that if Heriot-Watt were to open a third location overseas, it would not be before the Malaysia campus was well established. “We’re talking another five, six, seven years” until another such venture, he said.

“But I think we’re a university that doesn’t see any problem [with expanding abroad]. If you look at somewhere like Monash [University in Australia], it has [campuses in] China, Malaysia, South Africa, India, and a very high reputation.”

With the university administering nearly 50,000 exams worldwide each year, quality assurance is a major undertaking. Last October, it emerged that in 2011-12, at the Dubai campus’ School of Management and Languages, nearly one in eight students had been found guilty of cheating, with low entry standards blamed.

The vice-chancellor argued that the discovery of the collusion between students demonstrated the soundness of the university’s controls. “We stopped that and we’ve had no recurrence of it,” he said.

Behind all these initiatives – growing branch campuses, attracting more international students in Scotland and building distance learning programmes – is a target to increase income from international student fees from £40 million in 2011-12 to £90 million by 2018.

As set out in the university’s Strategic Plan 2013-18, by the end of this period total income will have grown by 57 per cent to £235 million (from about £150 million in 2011-12).

If these plans sound like a bid for corporate world domination, Professor Chapman is keen to stress that Heriot-Watt’s sights are not set on the Middle East and Asia alone, and that it has a local and national mission about which it is equally serious.

The university’s International Centre for Island Technology is based in Stromness in the Orkney Islands, while its School of Textiles and Design is in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders.

“I’m not constantly on a plane, but I’m often travelling,” said Professor Chapman, who pointed out that he gives a “state of the union” address to each campus every year.

Last year, Heriot-Watt won the right to build a £30 million sports training centre (it will be contributing £2.5 million to the project, as will Edinburgh city council, with the Scottish government providing the rest of the funding).

“It will be one of the best, if not the best, in the UK,” Professor Chapman said, and university sports teams will have access. “When this comes, I will be able to attract the best sports science researchers round the world.”

In numbers

30,000
Number of Heriot-Watt students worldwide

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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