Creativity in a rural idyll will 'benefit from global focus'

Bath Spa's new vice-chancellor plans to expand through internationalisation. Simon Baker reports

September 8, 2011

Credit: Freia Turiand
In concert: Slade says she eschews an 'us and them' approach, and hopes to work with academics to tackle challenges

A small, post-1992 university set in the stunning rural landscape of the Prince of Wales' private estate may not be the first place that springs to mind when considering the next great wave of globalisation in higher education.

With just 130 students from outside the European Union in 2009-10, Bath Spa University had one of the lowest proportions of international students of any institution in England, bucking the trend of recent years for overseas expansion.

However, its decision to recruit a new vice-chancellor with experience of working in countries as diverse as Mexico, Australia and the Netherlands could signal a change in direction allowing it to reach further beyond British shores.

Christina Slade, who will take over at Bath Spa at the start of 2012, believes that the setting of its main campus at Newton Park in the beautiful Duchy of Cornwall, as well as its focus on the creative arts and humanities, makes it ideally placed to do so.

Currently dean of arts and social sciences at City University London, Professor Slade has travelled the world as an academic and wife of a former Australian ambassador, and said that overseas demand was entering a new and exciting phase, especially for universities specialising in creative subjects.

"As we look to those countries of student recruitment, China, India, Malaysia and Thailand, the first generation were interested in accounting, finance and business management. I think now that the next generation is more aware of the value of an arts education," she said.

Tapping into this increasing demand will in turn benefit the domestic student body, she argued, especially in a regional location such as Bath, as experience of other cultures, languages and people is increasingly seen as an essential life skill.

"We want the students from the region to develop a global focus, to start to see that while Bath might seem a long way from London, in some respects it is just part of the greater conurbation of the greatest concentration of the creative industries in the world and they should be part of it."

This drive to internationalise the student body should also be backed by strong alliances with overseas universities, making it easier for UK students to spend time abroad and vice versa, Professor Slade said.

She added that universities across the sector could reap the rewards of such an approach in the coming years, provided they worked hard to develop "niche" offerings and moved away from attempts to simply recruit as many people as possible.

Professor Slade, the former dean of humanities at Australia's Macquarie University in Sydney, said: "We have to focus very carefully on what international education can offer and make sure universities add value for our students."

She suggested that in the light of Australia's experience with the international higher education market - which has seen a recent drop in numbers - the UK needed to be vocal about its place in the global higher education scene.

"We in the sector need to be vociferous about what it is that we're offering and why it is so important that international students come to Britain.

"Not just for making money, but to keep Britain an international power. Education is the jewel in our crown," she explained.

On Bath Spa, Professor Slade said she had been particularly impressed by its "very strong" arts school and other subject offerings such as music, dance and creative writing.

She also said its teaching track record was excellent and paved the way for it to become a leading undergraduate college in the US liberal arts mould, while at the same time retaining key areas of research.

As for the uncertain economic and policy environment, Professor Slade, who originally hails from Adelaide, should be well equipped to deal with the shifting sands, having already dealt with financial pressures at City and Macquarie.

But she stressed that her core approach was to allow senior academics to take responsibility for dealing with such problems.

"I give them the information, I share it and then we make the decision together - it is not us and them. I think that is a really important strategy in times of financial stress," she said.

"We used to love to think that we, academics, did not need to be involved in finance, but these days it is a great luxury not to have to engage with issues driving policy decisions."

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