Give foreign dish some UK flavour

August 25, 2006

Establishing a campus overseas is not a route to easy money but, says Harriet Swain, providing you plan properly, do your research and take a long-term view, your institution should profit in many ways.

Does campus life seem a bit mundane after a globetrotting summer? Are you bored with the same student gripes and chips every day in the canteen? Why not start a venture overseas - lots of potential students, lots of potential income and the odd bowl of noodles?

First, you need to define exactly what the venture will be, says Douglas Tallack, pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation at Nottingham University. It could mean franchising a number of courses, setting up joint ventures with an overseas collaborator, or setting up separate overseas campuses, as Nottingham has done in China and Malaysia.

Tallack argues that setting up a campus is the best option because it will give you most control over the operation. But he warns that it demands a strong commitment from senior management, as well as excellent staff and a human resources team dedicated to looking after them. He says it is particularly important to manage staff succession so that new personnel involved in the project do not face too steep a learning curve. You will also have to give staff different contracts, depending on whether they are recruited in the UK or overseas, and will need in place the management structure to cope with this. Establishing good research on campus as quickly as possible is essential, he says, "otherwise you won't get the top researchers".

But you will need to be prepared to pay for quality. UK staff who work overseas will need a salary supplement and regular trips home. "We are constantly flying academic and administrative and teaching staff from here to there and staff there to here," he says. "You have to be prepared to do that, otherwise the thing just spins off."

Whether you go for the campus option or the cheaper and more common practice of setting up a franchise, you should tackle legal issues early on, warns Jenny Bradfield, a solicitor with the education team at Martineau Johnson.

You will need to ensure that the venture is within the institution's legal powers and has been approved at executive level. You will also need to make sure that you understand local law and practice. Is the political climate stable? Are there restrictions on the operation of foreign institutions? Will you need local or national approval and is your proposed partner institution, if there is one, legally entitled to enter into the arrangement?

Bradfield says that you will need to consider the most appropriate structure for the venture, taking into account the scale of the project, tax and financial considerations, and potential complications in terminating the arrangements. Will you establish the venture under local or UK law?

If you are setting up a venture with a partner institution, you will need to work out which university's disciplinary, complaints and academic appeals procedure for students will apply, which services - such as libraries - students will be able to access, who will own intellectual property rights and who will control marketing activities. You will also need to explain the nature of the partnership to students and plan for what will happen if the venture fails.

Alison Mayhew, spokeswoman for the Quality Assurance Agency, says that you must ensure that academic standards and the quality of learning opportunities are maintained in the same way that they would be in the UK, and that you offer staff development opportunities in both countries and encourage active links. Be consistent with your normal practices, she says, keep your education objectives compatible and continue to follow the academic infrastructure of your institution. Even when operating overseas, UK institutions still need to follow the guidance in the code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education, the frameworks for higher education qualifications, subject benchmark statements and programme specifications.

Similarly, support networks should be no different from those in the UK and you need to take particular pains to ensure the integrity of student assessment.

Mayhew says that you will need to recognise cultural differences that may affect everything from business practices to holiday times, term dates and daily modules. The translation of words or the colours used in logos or documentation may cause offence in one country but not in another, she warns. "There is also difference in culture if a partner overseas is profit-oriented and privately owned, which will impact on the way the UK higher education institution might set up a partnership," she says.

John Latham, now chief executive and principal of Cornwall College, and chief operating officer at Liverpool University when it was planning its campus in China, due to open this year, says you must get as much pre-briefing on doing business in your target country as possible. This should come from people who have hands-on experience and knowledge of that region. "Pointers on what to avoid and the different value systems are invaluable," he says. "Measures of success and motivation for doing business in China, for example, are profoundly different from those that characterise dealings in Western Europe or the US."

Tallack says that before you set up your venture you have to ensure that you understand the higher education environment in the country you are going to, and be prepared for surprises further down the line.

Finally, Mayhew advises costing the activity carefully and not to assume it will make money, while Latham says the best advice he received regarding international business was given to him by a Chinese friend who had been educated and trained in the US: "Patience is your greatest virtue."

Further information Quality Assurance Agency: www.qaa.ac.uk

Top tips

Decide what kind of venture you want, where you want it and why

Research the country and its higher education systems

Get good management structures in place

Stay true to your educational objectives

Don't expect to make money

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